Friday, December 31, 2021

Auld Lang Syne—Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival

                                                    Auld Layng Syne performed by the Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

Although there have occasionally been other songs that made feeble attempts to displace it, New Year’s Eve belongs firmly to Auld Lang Syne and it promises to remain supreme in defiance of any and all changes in musical tastes and styles.

Most of us know that the song comes from a poem by the revered Ploughman Poet and Scottish national icon Robert Burns.  But you may not know the whole story. 

                            The Scottish Ploughman Poet Robert Burns.

After his first blush of fame with the publication of his Kilarnock Poems in 1786, Burns began his fruitful relationship with the editor and publisher James Johnson who was preparing to publish his Scots Musical Museum.  He collected and often rewrote scores the songs of this great collection, which preserved traditional Scottish music when it could have easily vanished.  One of the songs he sent was Auld Lang Syne with the notation “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”

That was not quite true on a couple of accounts.  Other collectors had recorded variants and in 1711 James Watson published a version that showed considerable similarity in the first verse and the chorus to Burns’ later poem and is almost certainly derived from the same old song.  Burns changed it from a romantic song about old lovers to a nostalgic drinking song of old friends.  Most of the words in Scotts we now sing were written by Burns.

John Masey Wright's and John Rogers' illustration of Auld Lang Syne in 1841.

After his early death in 1796 at the age of only 37, the song took on a special significance as a legacy of the beloved poet.

The tune was we now sing it may or may not have been the one that Burns originally heard but became standard in the early years of the 19th Century.  It is pentatonic—based on a five note scale—Scots folk melody, originally a sprightly dance in a much quicker tempo.

Exactly when the song became associated with New Year’s is unknown.  It is possible the earlier folk versions were already sung at that time.   But was incorporated in Hogmanay—the last day of the old year and the first of the new—celebrations by the mid-19th Century.

Nobody in the world celebrates New Years with zest and ritual like the Scots.  You can thank those dour old Calvinists of the National Kirk of Scotland—the Presbyterians—for more completely scouring Christmas from the calendar than Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans ever dreamed in England.  If Scottish Catholics kept Christmas in their hearts, the kept their mouths shut about it and the practice faded even in their communities.  After the celebration of Christmas was no longer outright banned it was still shunned as being “too English” and did not become a legal holiday in Scotland until 1958 and only then because so many English were moving into the border areas and were employed at firms in the big cities.

The Hogmanay circle singing of Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight.

Hogmanay has many quaint customs, but they center on the stroke of midnight.  Then the central room of a home hosting the celebration was cleared of furniture and guests join hands with the person next to them to form a great circle around the dance floor. At the beginning of the last verse, everyone crosses their arms across their breast, so that the right hand reaches out to the neighbor on the left and vice versa. When the tune ends, everyone rushes to the middle, while still holding hands. When the circle is re-established, everyone turns under the arms to end up facing outwards with hands still joined.

The song spread rapidly around the globe thanks to the Scottish diaspora to British Empire nations—especially Canada—and to the United States.  Scottish regiments spread the song even wider and it was adapted for use by British troops generally from India, to Africa, to the Middle East.

It wasn’t until the 1890’s, however, that there was printed mention of the song being used publicly at New Year’s in the United States, although it undoubtedly was sung in Scottish communities.  When the first illuminated ball was dropped in New York City’s Times Square in 1907 the song was so firmly identified with New Year’s that the crowd sang it after the ball touched down.

Guy Lombardo leading His Royal Canadians during a New Year's Eve broadcast in the 1960s.

But Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians really cemented Auld Lang Syne as the New Year’s Eve song.  Lombardo first broadcast a New Year’s Eve program on CBS Radio on December 31, 1928.  He continued broadcasting from the Roosevelt Room until 1959, and then moved his base to the larger Waldorf Astoria.  In 1959 the New Year’s Eve program was first aired on CBS Television and continued on that network for 21 years.  After Lombardo’s death the song was still played in all of the airings of the Times Square celebrations.

The Pipers lead the Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards on parade in Edinburgh. 

Today we fittingly turn to an instrumental version by the Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.  Regimental musicians like these help spread Auld Lang Syne across the British Empire and English speaking world.


Thursday, December 30, 2021

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? —Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival

                                                        What Are You Doing New Year's Eve by the Orioles.

Back in the day everyone who was not a misanthrope or a shut-in went out on New Year’s Eve.  The toffs wore their white ties and tails and elegant evening gowns and furs to don paper hats and dance the night way to orchestras in sprawling Art Deco ballrooms.  At least that is what all of the old movies taught the rest of the Depression and war weary populous.  But those average Joes and Jills also went out and celebrated with their own funny hats and noise makers in urban ballrooms, lodge halls, piano bars, and neighborhood saloons.  And it was not just attractive young people.  Period photographs reveal that revelers include many middle aged and older couples.

Celebrating in the U.K. in the 1930s--a night to forget the Depression.

Drunk driving enforcement and cozy stay-at-home TV extravaganzas have been eating away at New Year’s Eve revelry for years.  Last year the Coronavirus precautions left the crystal ball to drop in an empty Times Square and in most places clubs and nightspots are shuttered or open to extremely limited capacity.  This year a raging resurgence of the Omicron variant is scaring many folks away from re-scheduled public hoopla and causing some clubs and venues to shut down either as a precaution or because performers and staff have been infected. Dancing and smooching strangers at midnight will be discouraged in all but the kamikaze you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do-libtard states.

New Year's Eve--the romantic dream.

But way back when for those who were not married or already romantically involved the question what are you doing New Year’s Eve? was of vital importance.  Nobody wanted to be alone on New Year’s and everyone wanted someone to kiss at the stroke of midnight.  That is what songwriter Frank Loesser had in mind in 1947 when he made the question into a song—What are You Doing New Year’s Eve. Margaret Whiting, barely out of her teens recorded it for Capitol Records that year without much note taken of it.   

Although it was performed on radio shows that often featured the popular composer’s work, it didn’t become a real hit until 1949 when the early doo-wop group The Orioles hit #9 on Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues chart. 

Despite that success, the song did not become an instant standard or holiday favorite.  In fact, it languished seldom recorded until Nancy Wilson hit #17 on Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart in 1965.  Two years later the same recording returned to the Holiday Chart.  Wilson’s silky and sexy, take helped make the song a something of a jazz standard sung by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.

New Year's revelry for ordinary folks--somewhere in a lodge hall, bar back room, or neighborhood venue.

But the song still didn’t register as a pop standard until the new century and streaming video from YouTube made it go viral.  In 2011 an utterly charming impromptu duet with Zooey Deschanel and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt made a splash ultimately attracting more than 20 million hits.   And in 2017 Scott Bradlee’s Post Modern Juke Box covered the song featuring vocalists Rayvon Owen and Olivia Kuper Harris and has registered more than a million views.   

Many consider the Orioles from Baltimore the first successful doo-wop recording artists and the first vocal group of post-War Rhythm & Blues.  Four voices in harmony accompanied only by guitar and up right bass.

But today we are featuring the earliest recording of Loesser’s song by the original hit-makers.  The Orioles are generally acknowledged as post-World War II R&B’s first vocal group. Baltimore natives, they blended rhythm with group harmonies and named themselves after Maryland’s state bird.  Members included lead tenor Sonny Til, high tenor Alexander Sharp, baritone George Nelson, bass vocals and standup bass player Johnny Reed, and guitarist Tommy Gaither.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

River by Joni Mitchell—Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival

                                            River by Joni Mitchell.

Last week CBS broadcast the Kennedy Center Honors.  First up for recognition was Joni Mitchell, who now stands and walks with difficulty since recovering from a devastating 2015 brain aneurysm rupture but was in good spirits as the story of her life unfolded on stage along with many of her finest songs.  Among them was River from her 1971 album Blue sung by Brandi Carlile.  It was a breathtaking, wounded, and personal song off the most highly regarded album of her long career.  It is also a Christmas song like none you ever heard before or since. 

Mitchell, of course, is the iconic Canadian singer/songwriter, who emerged from the mid-Sixties folk coffee house scene to become one of the major composers and musical innovators of her generationChildhood polio weakened her left hand making some traditional guitar chording difficult, so she developed a unique open tuning style that liberated her from many conventions.

Her first success came as songwriter.  Tom Rush recorded Urge for Going which was also covered by George Hamilton IV as a #5 hit on the Country Music Buffy Sainte-Marie came out with The Circle Game.  Judy Collins covered Both Sides Now before Joni could record it.

Like most of her albums Clouds featured original artwork by Mitchell herself.

He first album released in 1968 Joni Mitchell or Song to a Seagull was a deceptively simple solo with just Joni and her guitar and was produced by David Crosby.   It featured Michael from Mountains but none of her original songs covered by others.  Not a huge seller, it became a folk cult hit, and led to bookings across the U.S. and Canada that built a following.  The follow-up, Clouds, which was released in April 1969 and contained Mitchell’s own versions of some of her songs already recorded and performed by other artists. The covers of both LPs were designed and painted by Mitchell a blending of her painting and music that she continued throughout her career. Clouds won her first Grammy Award in 1970 as Best Folk Performance.

Mitchell did not make it to the Woodstock Festival where her friend Crosby and her current love interest Graham Nash debuted the powerhouse super trio Crosby, Stills and Nash.  On her agent’s advise she honored a commitment to appear on the Dick Cavett Show instead.  Viewing TV coverage of the festival in her New York City hotel room, she dashed off Woodstock which became a generational anthem and catapulted her to superstardom.  Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded it first and the song was played under the closing credits of the documentary film Woodstock released March 1970.

Mitchel with her lover Graham Nash.

Joni’s own version was included in her next album Ladies of the Canyon which was largely inspired by her move to Malibu Canyon in California and the close, almost incestuous community of musicians and artists there, including Nash and Crosby.  The album also included the environmental anthem Big Yellow Taxi. The LP was an instant smash on FM radio and became Mitchell’s first certified Gold Album.

Seemingly at the crest of her popularity, Joni decided to take a break from touring and recording to go to Europe to concentrate on painting, composing, and finding herself.  Her relationship with Nash was already shaky and while she was gone he sent her a telegram ending it.  She had a short but intense relationship with an American named Cary Raditz, who was the “redneck on a Grecian Isle” during her stay on Crete.  Later, she entered a passionate affair with James Taylor who she has said could have been “the love of my life” that ended due to his own rise to stardom and his heroin addiction.

James Taylor performing with Joni Mitchell.  He could have been the love of her life but his heroine addiction got in the way.

Taylor Swift and Adelle have specialized in sometimes wrenching self-confession about their love lives in their music.  Mitchel did it first.  The album Blue plumbed all of those failed relationships.  River was inspired by the break-up with Nash.  In a 1979 interview she recalled.

The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.

Blue was Mitchell's most critically acclaimed album and also her most raw and revelatory. 

Mitchell continued to have a remarkable, productive career.  She went on to explore new genres including jazz, R&B, Rock & Roll, classical and non-western forms.  She has received many accolades, including nine Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.  Rolling Stone called her “one of the greatest songwriters ever” and AllMusic said, “When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century.”

Her last studio album Shine was released in 2007.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Seven Principles by Sweet Honey and the Rock—Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival

                                            The Seven Principles by Sweet Honey and the Rock.

Today is the third day of Kwanzaa which was created in 1966 during the blossoming of a period of Black Nationalism by Maulana Karenga, a Black studies scholar and a leading Los Angeles militant. 

Beginning on December 26 and running through January 1, candles are lit representing values.  Each of the values is given a Swahili name.  Today is day three— Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) “To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.”

A Kwanzaa button from the collection of theNational Museum of African American History and Culture.

Karenga was born Ron Everett in Parsonsburg, Maryland on July 14,1941 into the very large family—14 children of a sharecropper and Baptist preacher, he came to Los Angeles in 1959 where he studied at Los Angeles City College (LACC) and the University of Southern California (UCLA).  As an undergraduate he was active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNICC) and was the first Black President of the Student Body.

It was during this period he took the title Maulana, Swahili-Arabic for master teacher and the name Karenga, Swahili for keeper of tradition.

After the Watts Riots of 1965 the young graduate student was influenced by Malcom X in developing African-American Unity, cultural pride, and a separatist militancy.  He was involved in many activities and organizations and was regarded as a rising intellectual leader.

Kwanzaa was designed in instill those values in a community he feared was still too dominated by “alien” and white ideology and religion.  It was to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” The name is derived from the Swahili for first fruit celebration, matunda ya kwanza.

Dr, Maulana Karenga, seated second from the left, at the Newark Black Power Conference circa 1967.

Karenga used Swahili as the ritual language of its operations because it is a pan-African language, the most widely spoken of Sub-Saharan African tongues.  But it is an East African language as are the customs on which the celebration was based.  The vast majority of African-Americans trace their lineage to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and West Africa, very culturally and linguistically distinct from the east.  Critics in the Black community charged that he could have taken inspiration from instead from the West African empires and kingdoms.  But Karenga was a student of Swahili and the east, and not of the slave trade or origins of his own people.

The celebration, centered around lighting candles in the home over seven days, obviously is borrowed from Jewish Chanukah traditions, but Karenga has barely acknowledged that obvious parallel.

Karenga at first frankly hoped that his new celebration would supplant Christmas and New Years, both in his opinion instruments of White oppression.  But the deep connection of the Black community to the Church and to its celebrations stood in the way of the spread of his new observance.  Also, his allies in nationalism among Muslims, both followers of Malcom X’s traditional Islam and the Nation of Islamthe Black Muslims—also objected to Karenga’s non-theism and hostility to religion.

Kwanzaa was meant to be a family centered celebration of African culture and values but father figures in private and men in public celebrations dominated the lessons.  Black women are  now more assertive in claiming a central place in the rituals.

After 1970 Karenga changed his tune and now emphasizes that it is a secular observation that does not conflict with or contradict religious celebrations.  “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday,” he wrote in 1994.

With that adaptation, Kwanzaa began to spread rapidly.  It was easy for families to adopt for private observation.  Most of those families also have a Christmas tree in the corner.  Public observations came to include many at major Black Churches.

Kwanza candles and associated symbols and books.

Candles are lit every night for the seven values.  Materials are available for study and reflection.  Songs and poems have been written.  The values are:

·         Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

·         Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

·         Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.

·         Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

·         Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

·         Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

·         Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

The final night concludes with a feast and gift giving.

The spread of the observance was aided, ironically, in no small part to the attention given it in the mainstream, white dominated media, especially local television news coverage in major urban centers.  The attention always made the celebration seem much more pervasive than it ever was.

Despite claims to tens of millions of participants across the globe made every year by Karenga on his official Kwanzaa web site, at its height in the mid-70’s it was actively observed by a small fraction of the Black community.  Exact figures are hard to come by and wildly exaggerated claims are made not only Karenga, but by sympathetic scholars.  With the decline of Black Nationalism as a movement and the founder’s many troubles—more on that in a bit—participation has declined and leveled off.  Estimates range from 12 to as low as 2 million participants in the early the 21st Century.  Market research by the National Retail Foundation in 2004 found that 1.6% of those surveyed planned to celebrate Kwanzaa. Generalized to the US population as a whole, that would mean that around 4.7 million people planned to celebrate Kwanzaa in that year.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has encouraged observation and education about Kwanzaa in it predominately white congregations with special worship materials like this.

And some of them would be White.  Introduction of Kwanzaa into school curricula as part of the general holiday observances has brought it to many White children.  In my own, overwhelmingly White faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, which embraces diversity and often poaches traditions, Kwanzaa is often integrated with other winter holiday celebrations.

A lot of other White folk, however, turn purple in the face every time they hear about Kwanzaa.  For them it is an affront, and more than that a direct threat.  Black Nationalism and cultural pride evokes for them all of the old nightmares of slave rebellions, rampaging Mau Maus, and violent civil episodes associated with some Black Lives Matter demonstration and anti-police violence protests.  It is also confabulated with the alleged war on Christmas by a shadowy Commie/liberal/Black conspiracy.  Every year the Right Wing talking heads froth at the mouth over the observation.  Which probably delights Karenga who remains a separatist at heart.

Maulana Karenga ,founder and leader of US/Organization,  a rival to the Black Panthers for leadership of the Black Nationalist movement.

As he promoted the holiday, Karenga also got involved in one of the nastiest and most violent of feuds within the Black militant community.  The group that he founded in 1965 and led—US Organization—became a rival of the emerging Black Panther Party for leadership of the nationalist movement on the West Coast.  Egged on by an FBI COINTELPRO dis-information program, members of the two groups engaged in a gun fight on the UCLA campus in 1969 resulting in the death of two Panthers and the wounding of on US member.  Retaliatory shootings occurred across the country for months resulting in two more deaths and the delight of J. Edgar Hoover.

The Panther Party had better press and more adherents.  Its members and supporters naturally withdrew from any Kwanzaa celebrations.

But the worst was yet to come.  In 1971 Karenga was convicted of kidnapping and sexually torturing Deborah Jones and Gail Davis.  Karenga’s estranged wife, Brenda Lorraine Karenga, testified that she had participated in the abuse.  Karenga claimed that the women were plotting against him and were part of the COINTELPRO harassment.  He denied claims of abuse.

He was sentenced to ten years in prison and held at the California Men’s Colony until he was released with the support of high profile Black state politicians and office holders.  While he was in prison US fell apart and the reputation of Kwanzaa was damaged.  Karenga seldom speaks about the conviction, except to note that he was once a political prisoner.  The episode is left out of his autobiography and on the Kwanzaa web page.

Karenga at a 2004 public Kwanzaa observance.

Upon being released, Karenga tried unsuccessfully to resurrect US, and then devoted himself to an organization promoting Kwanzaa.  He finished one PhD. at United States International University (now Alliant International University) and a second at UCLA.  He is now the Chair of the Africana Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach, the Director of the Kawaida Institute for Pan African Studies, and the author of several books.

Despite its ups and downs, Kwanzaa remains meaningful and is an inspiration for many in the Black Community.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

Sweet Honey and the Rock in performance.

Several songs have been written for Kwanzaa, many of them for children to teach them the values represented by the candles.  Today, however, we are sharing Seven Principles, a song for all ages by Sweet Honey and the Rock, an all-woman, African-American a cappella ensemble founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon in 1973 at All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, D.C.  They have recorded many successful and admired gospel songs, feminist anthems, and blues/jazz/rock arrangements.  Reagon and other founding members have retired, but the group has continued with several other members over the years.


Monday, December 27, 2021

The Holly and the Ivy Annie Lennox—Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival

                                            The Holly and the Ivy sung by Annie Lennox.

Today we feature one of the oldest English carols, The Holly and the Ivy.  Its origins are shrouded in the mist of time.  Pagan greenery was anointed with Christian symbolism.

The most familiar melody of several that have been set to the is very old and resembles the songs of the Tudor era 1485–1602 which is why it is a favorite of Madrigal Singers.

The earliest surviving mention of the song in print occurred in the early 19th Century when collecting folk music became fashionable.  The earliest recorded version of the lyrics was in a broadside published by H. Wadsworth in Birmingham between 1814 and ’18.  Later Victorian sources claimed that it was on a now lost broadside published about 1710.  Variations of the words were reproduced and the form in which they are most usually sung now first appeared in Cecil Sharp’s 1911 collection English Folk-Carols.  Sharp also married the words to the melody we now know.

The holly’s bright red berries were identified with the Blood of Christ and its sharp leaves with the Crown of Thorns and the Ivy was said to represent the purity of the Virgin Mary.  Versions of the song were sung during the Advent hanging of the greens in country parishes and were also popular with carolers and wassailers during the Twelve Days of Christmas.

                                An early broadside of The Holly & Ivy.

The custom of decorating homes with greens around the Winter Solstice pre-dates Christianity.  The Druids apparently used the ever-green holly and in Roman Britain greens were hung for Saturnalia.  The Christian references in the song as we now sing it may have been grafted onto earlier pagan or rural versions that orally preserved the old traditions.

The Holly King whose effigy was burned at Winter Solstice to be replaced by the Oak King or Green Man, the ruler of the growing light.

The earliest recording of the song was collected by Cecil Sharp from Mrs. Mary Clayton, at Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire and can be found in the British Museum.  Sir Henry Walford Davies wrote a popular choral arrangement that is often performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and by choirs around the world.

In addition to choral presentations, many artists have recorded versions of the song.  None are lovelier than the rendition of Anne Lennox, the classically trained contralto who gained fame as one half of Eurhythmics.  Until Adelle she was the “the most successful female British artist in UK music history.” As of 2008, including her work with Eurythmics, Lennox had sold over 80 million records worldwide. She has been named the Greatest White Soul Singer Alive by VH1 and one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time by Rolling Stone.  In 2012, she was rated #22 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women in Music. At the 2015 Ivor Novello Awards, Lennox was made a fellow of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, the first woman to receive the honor.

In addition to her career as a musician, Lennox is also a political and social activist, notable for raising money and awareness for HIV/AIDS as it affects women and children in Africa. She founded the SING Campaign in 2007 and founded a women’s empowerment charity The Circle in 2008. In 2011, Lennox was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for her “tireless charity campaigns and championing of humanitarian causes.”

Annie Lennox's 2010 album A Christmas Cornucopia is a modern classic and one of the greatest holiday recordings of all time.

Lennox considers herself an agnostic and became a vegetarian at age 29.  Her work, especially on her 2010 album A Christmas Cornucopia which included The Holly and the Ivy shows, distinctly pagan influences, a common tendency of feminists interested in the environment, justice, and the divine feminine.