Saturday, December 31, 2022

Auld Lang Syne—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival 2022-‘23

                                                   Auld Lang Syne by Scottish singer Dougie McLean.

Although there have occasionally been other songs that made feeble attempts to displace it, New Years 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 counts.  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.

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.

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

The tune as 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 ss 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 their 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 Citys Times Square in 1907 the song was so firmly identified with New Year’s that the crowd sang it after the ball touched down.

A New Year's Eve broadcast by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

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.

Beloved Scottish folk singer Dougie McLean has the favorite version of Auld Lang Syne in the song's home country.

Today we return to the simple, moving beauty of Burns’ creation in a performance by the great Scottish folk singer Dougie McLean.

Friday, December 30, 2022

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve —The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival 2022-‘23

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? by Postmodern Jukebox featuring  Rayvon Owen and Olivia Kuper Harris.

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 or 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.

New Year's Eve--the dream.

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 songWhat are You Doing New Years Eve.  Although it was performed on radio shows that often featured the popular composer’s work, it didn’t become a hit until 1949 when the early doo-wap group The Orioles hit #9 on Billboards Best-Selling Retail Rhythm and Blues chart.

Ordinary folk whooped it up in lodge halls and neighborhood joints.

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 Billboards 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.

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 19,600,000 hits.

One of the ever-changing line-ups of Scott Bradlee's Post Modern Juke Box.

In 2017 Scott Bradlees Post Modern Juke Box covered the song.  The rotating cast of performers—to date more than 70 of them, rose to internet fame posting weekly videos on YouTube.  Originally taped in Bradlee’s Queens New York basement the group reworked classic songs from older traditions—vaudeville, tin-pan alley, swing, and rhythm and blues or took modern pop, country, and even hip-hop hits and reset them to a jazzy old time nightclub style.  Their delightful version of What are You Doing New Year’s Eve featuring vocalists Rayvon Owen and Olivia Kuper Harris registered nearly one million hits in its first year.


Thursday, December 29, 2022

December Will Be Magic Again by Kate Bush—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival 2022-‘23

December Will be Magic Again form Kate Bush's 1979 British TV Christmas special.

It’s hard to believe that the Winter Holidays Music Festival has been running for years and we never before got around to Kate Bush, the revered British singer song writer, dancer, and producer.  Her unique four octave voice, brilliantly original lyrics, and performance style integrating her vocals, instrumental talents, and modern dance made her one of the biggest stars in the United Kingdom.  Far less known in America, she is something of cult favorite with indie musicians and art rock fans

                               Kate Bush as a young star.

Born as Catherine Bush on July 30, 1968 in Bexleyheath, Kent, in the greater London metropolitan area, she began writing original music at 11 years old and released her debut album, The Kick Inside at just 19 years old.  It included her first British #1 hit Wuthering Heights.  She released only 10 original albums through 2011, all but one of them ranking in the top five.  Sixteen of her singles were in the U.K. top twenty.

Dancing in an award winning video for Wuthering Heights.  Modern dance became integral to her live performances.

Bush only toured once for six weeks in Britain and Europe, in 1978, in an elaborate concert/performance art piece she wholly conceived.  It exhausted her and she could never be coaxed back out on the road again.  She appeared in sporadic television broadcasts, specials, and charity performances like Comic Aid.  After her first four albums there were long gaps between new recordings including four years between 1985 and ’89 and six years between 2005 and ’11.  She attributed the gaps to prioritizing her family and denied that her perfectionism was to blame.

She remains an intensely private person and has a reputation as something of a recluse.  None-the-less she has been showered with honors for her bold work including the Brit Award for Best Female artist, the Ivor Novello Awards, and has been nominated for the Billboard Music Awards, the Grammy Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Rolling Stone ranked Hounds of Love #68 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and in 2021 Running Up That Hill was also listed at #60 in the magazines 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. She is listed #46 on VH1s 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll. She was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2013 New Year Honors for services to music.

Bush is enjoying new fame with the re-release of Running Up That Hill which was featured on the TV spook series Stranger Things.

Bush was discovered by a whole new generation, most of whom assumed she was a new artist when Running Up That Hill was featured in season 4 of the cable series Stranger Things this past May.  Re-released as a single it shot to #1 in Britain—a 43 year gap since her last chart topper—and #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S.  The success has spurred revived interest in her body of work on both sides of the Atlantic.

Today we feature December Will Be Magic Again from her breakthrough year 1979 TV Christmas special. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

We Wish You a Merry Christmas—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival 2022-‘23


We Wish You a Merry Christmas performed by an early Platters lineup.  More than sixty singers have performed with the group over the decades and several groups still tour using that name.

Yes, you can still sing Christmas carols after December 25.  In fact, since the Christmas season lasts until the Feast of the Epiphany, it is both traditional and encouraged, particularly in Britain.  So today we feature one of the most widely sung carols which entirely omits any mention of the birth of Jesus or the tale and legends about the event.  We Wish You a Merry Christmas is instead a street begging song from the west of England that more than hints at a little extortion if the beggar’s’ demands are not met.

The song was cast in its current form by composer, conductor, and organist Arthur Warrell for the Madrigal singing group he led at the University of Bristol which first performed it in a holiday concert on December 6, 1935.  The same year prestigious Oxford University Press published an elaborate choral arrangement in four parts and under the title A Merry Christmas: West Country traditional song.

Wassailing with a begging bowl.  Perhaps these peasants and urchins got some figgy pudding from the master of the house.

While the song certainly sounds old and accurately depicts the mummery traditions of singing door to door for drinks and goodies on St. Stephen’s Day—Boxing Day—and all the way to Twelfth Night it did not appear previously in any of the notable collections of West county songs—Davies Gilbert in 1822 and 1823), William Sandys in 1833, as well as from the great anthologies of Sylvester in 1861 and Husk 1864.  It was also absent from the very comprehensive The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928.

Some similar snatches of lines from old poems or songs have been found from the early to mid-19th Century.  Two variants include;

We wish you a merry Christmas

And a happy new year;

A pocket full of money,

And a cellar full of beer.


I wish you a merry Christmas

And a happy New Year,

A pantryful of good roast-beef,

And barrels full of beer.

Although it is possible that street singers were using a version like that recorded by Arthur Warrell but that it had somehow been missed by avid folk song collectors, evidence suggest that Warrell may have built a new song from the fragments of older pieces.

By 1992 the song was so widely popular and identified as traditional that Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott of the New Oxford Book of Carols noted that the song was “English traditional…the remnant of an envoie much used by wassailers and other luck visitors,” but did not list any sources for the attribution.

A modern take on a figgy pudding.

What, you may ask, was the figgy pudding so much in demand by those door-to-door hustlers?  Americans think of pudding as something that used to be peddled by Bill Cosby on TV, a sweet, smooth desert eaten with a spoon in flavors like chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, or tapioca.  That’s not at all what the beggars demanded.  A figgy pudding has been described as an olden version of the modern English Christmas Pudding which is more like a rich cake.  Around London and other seaports, it was originally made with figs.  But they were an expensive luxury that had to be imported from the eastern Mediterranean.  In the rural West country figgy pudding was more commonly made with raisins, plums, or prunes.  There were as many variations as there were makers and it could be prepared by being baked, steamed, boiled, or fried.

Today we bring you a swinging version by the classic a cappella group The Drifters in the late 1950’s.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Harambee by Rita Marley for Kwanzaa—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival 2022-‘23

                                            Kwanzaa song Harambee by Rita Marley.

Today is the second 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 who was born Ron Everett in Parsonsburg, Maryland on July 14,1941

Beginning on December 26 and running through January 1, candles are lit representing African values.  Each of the values is given a Swahili name.  Today is day two— Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): “To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.”

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.

Karenga was a graduate student in 1965 and already a veteran of several civil rights organizations when he became 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 “alienwhite 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.

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.

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.

                                                Kwanza candles and associated symbols and books.

Karenga himself became a controversial and polarizing figure among Black militants and nationalists.  The group that he founded in 1965 and led—US / Organization became a bitter rival to the Black Panther Party for leadership and influence in the West Coast African-American community.  That rivalry escalated into several episodes of violence including shootings, bombings, attacks on rival meetings and at least four murders.

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 FBI COINTELPRO harassment that sought to stoke divisions in the Black community.  He denied claims of abuse.

He was sentenced to ten years in prison and held at the California Mens Colony until he was released with the support of high profile Black state politicians and office holders.  While he was in prison his organization 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.

                                                    Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga in a recent photo.

Upon being released, Karenga 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.  Several songs have been written for Kwanzaa, many of them for children to teach them the Seven Values represented by the candles. 

Like Hanukkah, the Jewish tradition Kwanzaa was obviously modeled on, the daily rituals were designed to be performed at home but frequently they include public events held in houses of worship, schools, and cultural centers like this one in Chicago..

Today, however, we are sharing a song by Rita Marley, the widow and musical heir of Bob Marley the reggae superstar, Jamaican nationalist, and Rastafari saint.  Cuban-born Alpharita Constantia Anderson was a back-up singer for Marley after two original members of the Wailers left the band under the name I Three.  After Marley’s death she launched her own career and worked tirelessly to preserve his memory.   Four of her children including Ziggy Marley have had significant musical careers of their own.

Rita Marley.

Rita’s 1984 song Harambee (working together for Freedom) has long been associated with Kwanzaa,                   


Monday, December 26, 2022

Good King Wenceslas for St. Stephen’s Day, Wren Day and Boxing Day—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival Festival 2022-‘23

                                                        Good King Wenceslas performed by Loreena McKennitt.

Today is the second day of the 12 Days of Christmas, a day with multiple personalities as we will see.  We will celebrate with a  an English carol about a Bohemian princeling/saint.

The Brits and the residents of other former pink blotches on Queen Victorias globe like many Americans usually spend today, Boxing Day, storming the malls and shops on what is usually the busiest retail sales day of the year. Disgruntled gift recipients hit the refund and exchange desks and others spent the gift cards and even old fashion cash.   But unlike most Yanks they do it on an official National Holiday as a paid day off.  Officially December 26 is just another Bank Holiday.  But Boxing Day is a treasured tradition with long and deep roots.

On Boxing Day an early Victorian middle class family gives the postman a small gift.  The urchin sweeping the snow will also get something for his efforts.

The celebration in the British Isles owes its origins to the aristocracy, gentry, and wealthy townsmen and their households.  The master would give presents to his servants and staff, who would also have the day off work.  Sometimes the master’s family would even serve meals to their inferiors!  Needless to say, this custom was very popular among the servants, and sometimes observed resentfully by those unaccustomed to either manual labor or generosity.

It is also a remnant of an ancient tradition that may—or may not—go back to the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, when there was a carnival-like turn around with slaves lording over masters for a day.  The tradition continued into the Middle Ages and on into Elizabethan times, when it took on the wild excesses of street revelry.

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, Deacon of Jerusalem by Rembrandt.  There was more than a touch of anti-Semitism reflected in the painting of the stoning death of the first Christian  martyr.  

That revelry doomed the whole season when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans took over.  Eventually, Boxing Day restored a controlled dollop of the old festival.  The Church of England gave it a religious cover to the day as St. Stephens Day. 

Stephen was the Deacon of Jerusalem the earliest days of Christianity known for his charities to the poor.  He was also the first Christian martyr, stoned to death for allegedly preaching the Trinity in the Temple.

Good King Wenceslas was celebrated on this English  biscuit tin.

The familiar carol Good King Wenceslas is a St. Stephen’s Day song meant for street begging.  In Ireland, the day is still officially called St. Stephen’s Day.

It is also known there as Wren’s Day there.  Boys in homemade hats and costumes carry a caged wren—or sometime a dead one pierced by a holly sprig—proclaiming it the king of the birds and begging for treats.  Once a fading country custom, in the cities men now re-enact it—often as a pub crawl.

                                        Irish Wren's Day beggars 1903.

In the Bank Holidays Act of 1871, Parliament recognized Boxing Day as a Bank Holidayan officially recognized public holiday.  While time off from work was not originally mandatory, but has become nearly universal.

The holiday spread across the Empire and is still official in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other Commonwealth countries.  In South Africa it was re-named The Day of Goodwill in 1994.

Today small gifts are still given trades people and service workers, but in Britain the day has become all about shopping.  It is the biggest shopping day of the year and has been compared to American Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Stores mark the day with huge sales.

It is also a day of sportFootball—that’s soccer to Americansand Rugby leagues hold full schedules of games, teams usually playing their most serious rivals.  There are also prestige horse races and for the country gentry mounted fox hunts—more recently due to a bitterly resented law, sans fox.  The toffs are no longer allowed to chase real fox, but still got to ride to the hounds chasing a scented bait.

The carol Good King Wenceslas is most closely associated with St. Stephen’s Day along with the street begging We Wish You a Merry Christmas and The Wren’s Song in Ireland. 

                                    An icon of St. Wenceslas a/k/a Duke Wenceslas I of Bohemia.

Good King Wenceslas is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian ruler going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen.  During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following his master’s footprints through the deep snow.

The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia who was murdered and martyred in 935. Wenceslas was considered a martyr and saint immediately after his death, when a cult grew up in Bohemia and in England. Within a few decades, four biographies of him were in circulation which had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages concept of the rex justus (righteous king), a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety as well as his princely power.

In 1853, English hymn writer John Mason Neale wrote the lyrics to Good King Wenceslas in collaborating with his music editor Thomas Helmore.  The carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide. Neale’s word were set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol Tempus adest floridum (The time is near for flowering) first published in the 1582 Finnish collection Piae Cantiones.  The very old origins of the melody give the song an appropriately medieval cast that makes it popular with modern madrigal singers.

Harp is just one of the instruments played by Canadian Celtic singer Loreena McKennitt.

The song has been recorded many times notably by Mel Tormé and Canadian Celtic singer Loreena McKennitt.  It was modernized with a synthesizer and orchestra instrumental version by Mannheim Steamroller.  The most popular version in Britain and Ireland is by the Canadian/Irish folk quartet The Irish Rovers. 

Today we feature a version by McKennitt, a Canadian singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and composer who writes, records, and performs world music with Celtic and Middle Eastern influences.  She is known for her refined and clear soprano vocals and has sold more than 14 million records worldwide.