Wednesday, November 30, 2022

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas— Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival 2022

Perry Como had the first hit version of It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas by Meredith Willson.

There are many subsets in the category of the Golden Age of American Popular Christmas Song.  One might be called the secular Advent songs—tunes that conjure up the growing excitement of the Holiday season invoking winter scenes, decorations, shopping, and general merriment.  At their best they deftly mixed daubs of nostalgia, with a snappy, jazzy modernity.  They could evoke the rustic past but were most at home in bustling urban streets.

                                Meredith Willson in his radio days.

Perhaps the most beloved of the genre was It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas written in 1951 by Meredith Willson then a prolific pop composer and the musical director of poplar radio programs like The Big Show hosted by actress Tallulah Bankhead and the Jack Benny Show.  Later he would become best known for his mega-hit Broadway shows, The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The original hit recording was laid down on September 18, 1951 by Perry Como and The Fontane Sisters with Mitchell Ayres and His Orchestra.  Less than two weeks later the ultra-prolific Bing Crosby, who seemingly recorded every promising new song and was already carving out a special niche as the voice of Christmas, made his own version which also charted that season.

Many cover versions have followed, most importantly by Johnny Mathis on his 1986 fourth album holiday album Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis.  After that version was featured in the film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York eight years later, it was re-released as a single.  Mathis’s version is perennially in the list of top ten favorite contemporary Christmas songs.

Today we return to Como’s original recording.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Huron Carol or Twas in the Moon of Wintertime— Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival 2022-23

A Canadian Christmas hymn based on a French folk song with original lyrics written by St. John de Brebeuf, SJ, sung by the Canadian Tenors. Also called Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.

Yesterday for Native American Heritage Month we shared a traditional Lakota Winter Song.   Today we turn to a First Nations Christmas Carol.  The Huron Carol, also known as Twas in the Moon of Wintertime is a Canadian Christmas hymn. It is Canada’s oldest Christmas song), probably written in 1642 by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. Brébeuf wrote the lyrics in the native language of the Huron/Wendat people.   The song's original Huron title is Jesous AhatonhiaJesus, he is born. The melody is based on a traditional French folk song, Une Jeune Pucelle or A Young Maid.

The English version of the hymn uses imagery familiar in the early 20th Century, in lieu of the traditional Nativity story.  This version is derived from Brébeuf’s original song and Huron religious concepts.  In the English version, Jesus is born in a “lodge of broken bark” and wrapped in a robe of rabbit skin.  He is surrounded by hunters instead of shepherds, and the Magi are portrayed as “chiefs from afar” who bring him fox and beaver pelts instead of the more familiar gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

                                        One of many Canadian First Nations icons of the Madonna and Child.

This English translation uses a traditional Algonquian name, Gitchi Manitou, for God, which is not in the original Wyandot version. The original lyrics are now sometimes modified to use imagery accessible to Christians who are not familiar with aboriginal Canadian cultures.  The song remains a common Christmas hymn in Canadian churches of many Christian denominations. It is also found in several American hymnals, including The Hymnal 1982 of The Episcopal Church, The United Methodist Hymnal, and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (#284).

Brébeuf was killed in the 1639 uprising by the Algonquin-speaking Mohawks against the Jesuit missionaries and the Huron.  For his martyrdom he was canonized a Saint in in 1930.

Martyrdom of Father Isaac Jogues S.J. Jogues and Brébeuf were two of eight Jesuits martyred over several years in North America during their missionary work in the 1600s, and were canonized together in 1930. 

A surviving eyewitness described his execution:

The Iroquois heated hatchets until they were glowing red and, tying them together, strung them across his shoulders, searing his flesh. They wrapped his torso with bark and set it afire. They cut off his nose, lips and forced a hot iron down his throat, and poured boiling water over his head in a gruesome imitation of baptism. They scalped him, and cut off his flesh while he was alive. Finally, someone buried a hatchet in his jaw.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Cheyenne Winter Song—The Murfin Winter Holiday Music Festival 2022-23

                                                        A Cheyenne Winter Song with art.

It is still Native American Heritage Month, so it is appropriate for us to turn to the seasonal music of Native American and First Nations peoples.  Many, of course, are ChristianRoman Catholic from lands claimed by the French and Spanish as well as converts from U.S. missionaries like the Salish and Kootenai Tribes  (Flat Heads) in western MontanaProtestants like the Lenape (Delaware) converted by the Moravians and others and many Cherokee and related tribes originating in the South East;  pockets converted by other denominations during the Reservation Era;  some Russian Orthodox in Alaska and Congregationalists in Hawaii

A Protestant altar set up for a Native American Christmas service.

Native singers, flutists, drum circles, and original composers have recorded a wide selection of adapted carols and holiday songs as well as new material in pop, folk, and country western styles.

But many aboriginal people reject Christianity as an alien and hostile religion of conquerors and settler colonists.  In recent years the move away from Christianity has been accelerated by the cultural renaissance fostered by American Indian movements of the 1960s and ‘70s and more recently by rage over the forced separation of families and brutal boarding schools run by churches in Canada and the U.S. resulting in wide-spread abuse, neglect, and sexual exploitation.

Armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers abet the forced abduction of First Nations children by Catholics to state sanctioned boarding schools where hundreds of thousands died and many more were abused and scarred for life.  Similar scenes were acted out by troopers in blue coats in the U.S.  Outrage over the practice has driven many indigenous peoples in both countries from Christianity.

Some have tried to synthesize Christian and traditional worship, most notably the Native American Church which uses psychedelic peyote as a sacrament.  It is now the most widespread indigenous organized religion among Native Americans in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico with an estimated 300,000 adherents.

The logo of the Native American Church which synthesizes Christianity and aboriginal traditions with the use of  peyote as a sacrament. 

Others, however, have turned increasingly to traditional tribal rituals, mythologies, and customs often having to resurrect them from the lore of elders and reviving nearly lost languages.  Some like the Hopi, Zuni, and Navaho of the American Southwest were powerful enough to maintain the religion and culture. 

There are many icons depicting Native American Christ figures.  This one by Father John Giuliani represents a Lakota Jesus.

Although Anglo New Agers have tried to promote Native American Spirituality as a homogeneous and touchy-feely ecological mysticism, the many nations and tribes had diverse rituals and belief systems, each due respect and honor.

Many traditions from the Woodland tribes of the Northeast and Great Lakes to the high plains horse cultures and the distinct worship of Pacific Northwest and Alaskan peoples had their own winter songs which acknowledged time of darkness, cold, and often starvation while thanking their spirit guides, for support and guidance and looking forward to a time of rebirth.

A Northern Cheyenne winter original Indian Art by Native American artist Gary Wingo.

Today we sample a Winter Song of the Northern Cheyenne chanted by a drum circle over an organ drone.


Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Murfin Winter Holiday Music Festival 2022-23 Kicks Off With We Gather Together

                             We Gather Together  by the First Untied Methodist Church of Houston, Texas choir.

It looks like the annual Murfin Winter Holiday Music Festival comes just in the nick of time this year—after two years of Coronavirus isolation everyone seems ready to burst out with a little old time Christmas/Holiday spirit and celebration.

Significantly some folks have been playing Holiday music for weeks now and the usual No-Christmas-music-‘til-after-Thanksgiving militants are even cutting them some unexpected slack.

If you have been Jonesing for some festive tunes, this is the place.

The Annual Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival works like this.  Every year on the First Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Epiphany—the Day of the Three Kings—on January 6, I will post a seasonal song, not only sacred and secular Christmas favorites, but songs celebrating the many winter festivals observed during this time of year including Hanukkah, St. Nicholas Day, Santa Lucia, Winter Solstice, Boxing Day, and New Years.  I try to mix up the familiar with what might not be so well known including songs from different cultures and new music.  Of course, there will be plenty of time and space for the old chestnuts.   Regular followers know that I am especially fond of the secular songs of the Golden Age of American Christmas Music which stretched roughly from the early 1930’s to the late 1970’s.

I am also eager to get suggestions and requests.  You can message me on Facebook, e-mail , or post a comment to a blog entry.

Lighting the Candle of Hope on the Advent Wreath.

Today in most Western Christian churches is the first Sunday of Advent, the four week liturgical season of anticipation of the birth of Christ.  Although most Americans call the whole time from Thanksgiving to December 25 the Christmas Season, Christmas was the 12 day period from the Nativity to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.  In churches only hymns of prophesy of a coming Savior, songs of Joseph and Mary on their journey to the City of David, and finally announcement carols on Christmas Eve were sung during Advent.  Songs of celebration of the Birth come after.

In most churches in addition to specific Bible readings light the first of the four candles on an Advent wreath as part of their services.  The first candle represents Hope.

In the U.S. unless there are 5 Sundays in November, the First Sunday of Advent follows Thanksgiving and elements of that holiday are often also part of the services in many Protestant congregations.

Adrianus Valerius wrote the patriotic Dutch song Wilt heden nu treden in 1597 and is still considered  national Hero in The Netherlands. 

So, it is fitting to start off our Music Festival with one of the most beloved Thanksgiving carols, usually known as We Gather Together.  Origin written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius as Wilt heden nu treden to celebrate the Dutch victory over Spanish forces in the Battle of Turnhout it was thus a patriotic song rather than a religious one.  But of course, it had religious overtones in that it celebrated the defeat of Catholic Spain over the mostly Reform Dutch patriots whose congregations could finally worship safely free from fear of the Inquisition.  Which is why you will probably rarely hear it sung at a Mass. 

It was originally set to a Dutch folk tune and was introduced in America an American hymnal in 1903.  When the Dutch Reformed Church in North America decided in 1937 to abandon the tradition of singing only Psalms and add hymns in church services, We Gather Together was chosen as the first hymn in their first hymnal.  It soon spread to other denominations, notably in the influential Methodist hymnal.  Church music historian Michael Hawn explained the song’s new popularity, “by World War I, we started to see ourselves in this hymn,” and the popularity increased during World War II, when “the wicked oppressing” were understood to include Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

There are several different translations from the Dutch and other adaptations published under a variety of titles.  Unitarian Universalists warble We Sing Now Together with lyrics by Edwin T. Becher.  But probably the most popular version has lyrics by Thomas Baker was arranged for Choir and congregation by Stephen Paulus.  That is what we will hear today performed by the First United Methodist Church of Houston, Texas under the direction of Cynthia Douglas and accompanied by Jay Whatley.


Saturday, November 26, 2022

Amid the Civil War Gore the Sawbones Was a Lady


                            Dr. Mary Walker with her Medal of Honor and Civil War uniform.

Mary Edwards Walker was a dark haired slender slip of a woman with a defiant dont-take-no-for-an-answer attitude and a penchant for mens clothing when she presented herself to the Army and demanded to be put to work as a surgeon not long after the Civil War erupted with the barrage of Fort Sumner in April 1861.  The shocked and astonished Army had absolutely no idea what to do with her.  The best they could offer her was a chance to serve as a volunteer civilian nurse at no payBetter than nothing, she thought, and took the chance vowing that she would prove herself as the equal of any man.     

Walker served in the field ending grotesquely maimed Union soldier boys at the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run—or Manassas Junction as the Rebs called it—in June.  Then she aided their recovery at the hospital set up in the Patent Office.  That gained her the grudging respect of Army surgeons, some of whom began advancing her cause

She was born Mary Edwards on November 26, 1832 on her parent’s farm near Oswego in Upstate New York—part of the so-called burned over district because of successive waves of evangelical fervor that had swept over the region.  It was also the fertile ground of independent dissenters of all types, but especially the breeding ground of the infant feminist and suffrage movements, teetotalism, and abolition.  Working alongside her four brothers in comfortable mens clothing, Mary absorbed it all with the active encouragement of her mother.

Walker graduated from Geneva Medical College in Ohio, the same school the educated the first college educated U.S. female doctor Elizabeth Blackwell.

She learned her letters in the rural school her mother kept and when the time came—at about the age of 15—took up teaching herself, saving her money for a higher education.  She enrolled at Geneva Medical College where she graduated in 1855 at the age of 22, the only woman in her class.

Upon graduation she married a fellow student, Albert Walker, and together they set up practice in Rome, New York, an Erie Canal port.  The practice struggled, largely due to suspicion of female doctors of whom there were damned few in the whole country.  To make matters worse, Mary continued to frequently go abroad in men’s clothing insisting simply that they were more comfortable and practical than the bulky layers of skirts and petticoats required of women.

By 1860 not only was the practice floundering, so was the marriage.  The distaff Dr. Walker decided that her education needed broadening.  She enrolled as an undergraduate at Bowen Collegiate Institute, later known as Lennox College, a Presbyterian co-educational liberal arts school in Hopkinton, Iowa that had just opened.  Her tenure there was brief, however.  She left the school when required to drop out of the all-male Debate Society.

Thus, she was very much at loose ends and available when the War broke out with all of its exciting opportunities.

Dr. Walker became adept at the brutal but necessary amputations conducted in primitive field hospitals without anesthetics or hygiene.

After winning respect for her early work as a nurse, Walker was allowed to accompany the Army as an unpaid volunteer surgeon at field hospitals—the kind of places that made production lines of amputations after a battle, brutal but necessary work when Minié balls, cannon balls, and shell fragments shattered limbs and the procedure was the only way to try to avoid fatal gangrene infections.  She saw a lot of this kind of action with the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg in December 1862.   In September 1863 she was with the Army of the Cumberland for the Battle of Chickamauga

The woman posing with officers and civilian surgeons in this photo is believed to be Mary Walker.

Working in a hospital in Chattanooga after the battle Walker encountered teen age Frances Hook who on her third enlistment in an Illinois volunteer regiment as Private Frank Fuller had been captured and imprisoned in Atlanta.  Hook was wounded in the thigh in an escape attempt and her gender was discovered.  She was then slated for prisoner transfer, but her story so impressed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that he offered her a commission if she would change sides.  Hook had defiantly refused, declaring that she would rather serve in the Union Army as a private than as a Rebel lieutenant and that she would rather be hanged than fight against the Union.  Her story so impressed the feisty feminist doctor that Walker made sure her story was publicized in the press and she lobbied unsuccessfully for the War Department to match Davis’s offer and make her a second lieutenant in blue.

Dr. Walker helped publicize the case of Frances Hook who enlisted three times as Pvt. Frank Fuller, became a prisoner of war, escaped and was wounded.

About the same time, Walker was also offering her services to the Secretary of War as a spy behind the lines.  Although this, too, was turned down, she did finally get an official appointment with pay as a civilian surgeon with the Army of the Cumberland, making her the first woman ever employed by the Army in that capacity.

As assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry, Walker frequently crossed the lines to treat wounded or sick civilians and even wounded Confederates.  She may very well have collected intelligence on enemy troop disbursements on these forays, partially fulfilling her dream of becoming a spy.  The Confederates certainly thought so.  On April 10, 1864 she was arrested after assisting a Southern surgeon in an amputation.  She was charged as a spy—a capital offense.  She was held at Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia until she was exchanged on August 12.

Undeterred by the experience she returned to field service for the Atlanta campaign.  Later, as the war was winding down Walker was briefly appointed the superintendent of a female prison in Louisville and the as the head of an orphanage in Tennessee.

At war’s end Walker found herself a modestly celebrated figure when was recommended for the Medal of Honor by Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas. On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present her the medal.  She was then he only woman ever to receive the award and one of only a handful of civilians

She took advantage of the fame to launch into a career as a lecturer and a writer.  Not only did she share her wartime adventures with audiences, but she became an outspoken advocate for health care for the poor, temperance, womens rights, and dress reform for women.  The latter issues were the subjects of two books.  Her defiant insistence of wearing men’s clothing—she usually appeared in dress clothes with a high top hat—led to her arrest several times for cross dressing.

Dr. Mary Edwards in old age, defiant in men's clothing she continued to proudly wear her Medal of Honor even when it was officially stripped from her.

As a committed radical feminist, Walker was embraced by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  She was a fiery advocate of their positions that women already had the right to vote under the Constitution and only needed Congress to enact enabling legislation. 

But later in the century more conservative women like Carrie Chapman Catt became dominant in the movement and switched tactics to a state-by-state campaign to adopt a Constitutional Womens Suffrage Amendment.  They also looked to make the movement more respectable by shunning controversial and colorful characters like Walker and Victoria Claflin Woodhull.  Walker refused to either abandon Stanton’s position or her mode of dress.  She found herself marginalized in the movement, her speaking opportunities dwindling.

She defiantly continued to attend important Suffrage conventions, where she was pointedly ignored.  She found a more positive reception among the militant English suffragettes who were conducting a defiant campaign of direct action, civil disobedience, and even vandalism and suicide.

An increasingly frail Walker continued to wear both her men’s clothing and her Medal of Honor.  In 1917 an Army review board revoked her medal along with 910 others including the old scout Buffalo Bill Cody.  Walker, naturally, continued to wear hers.

Less than two years later on February 19, 1919 Walker died at the age 86 in her hometown of Oswego.  At her simple funeral service, she was laid out in her best black suit and her coffin was draped in an American flag.  A little more than a year later the Nineteenth Amendment was passed guaranteeing women the right to vote.

                                            A Statue of Dr. Walker now stands before the Oswego, New York Town Hall.

Slowly, Walker’s reputation has been restored.  A Liberty Ship was named for her during World War II.  In 1977 President Jimmie Carter signed legislation restoring her Medal of Honor.  On the 150th anniversary of her birth in 1982, the Postal Service issued a 20 cent commemorative stamp.  And in 2000 she was finally inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York.

Walker has also been honored by having several clinics and medical facilities named in her honor, most notably the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C.   Her co-honoree Whitman, of course, was Walt Whitman with whom she would have served as a nurse early in the war.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Cañon City After Thanksgiving 1953— A Murfin Memoir Snapshot in Time

Dad was Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce which would have been responsible for this sign greeting circa 1950.

Note: My memoir of a distant place and time has become a post-Thanksgiving tradition here.

It was 1953. My father was the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in Cañon City, Colorado.  We rented a big old stone ranch house just outside of town.  Kit Carson was reputed to have signed a treaty with the Utes underneath a massive old cottonwood in the back yard.  Behind the tree was a big screen house and beyond that the barn, assorted sheds and outbuildings, the caretaker’s cottage and the spring house built into the side of hill with its entry way of cut sod.

The day after Thanksgiving the men from town—the merchants, their sons plus some of the teachers from the high school, police and sheriff’s deputies, and even a real cowboy or two from nearby ranches came to build the Christmas street decorations.  

They had two farm wagons drawn by enormous hairy-footed draft horses filled with spruce boughs.  The sharp smell of the sap still running fresh from the cut branches knifed through the crisp air. There was a lot of laughing and shouting and some cussing as the men brought armloads of the boughs into the screen house.

                                       Dad, W.M. Murfin, in Cheyenne about a year after the street decoration project.

They wore black and red checked hunting coats, overalls, wool caps with the earflaps down and yellow workman’s boots caked in mud.  My dad stood out—tall, slim and handsome, his gray Stetson on his head, bundled in a maroon corduroy jacket and olive twill trousers from his Army uniform, shoes slick soled and polished.  He pointed this way and that, creating order out of the chaos, sure authority resting lightly on him. He would take his turn with the bundles and the other work, an extra hand where needed.

They strung heavy wire between steel fence posts sledged into the frozen ground by the screen house.  They carefully wound the boughs around the cable twisting bailing wire to hold it in place. They twined the greenery with garlands of silver tinsel off of big reels. They laced strings of multi colored Christmas lights along the length of wire.

Inside the screen house on trestle tables made of rough planks other men made wreaths for the lampposts. Inside each wreath was a celluloid sign with a light bulb inside. Some were green and said Happy Holidays others were red and said Season’s Greetings.

Even larger wreaths were made to tie to the center of the garlands.  Multi-pointed stars or bells made of canvas and painted with bright red and yellow air craft dope were suspended inside the wreaths and lit from inside with a light bulb. The work went on for hours while the men laughed and smoked and sometimes took pulls from pocket flasks and passed whiskey bottles.

                                         Mom, Ruby Irene  Mills Murfin, around 1950.  She  commanded the kitchen that day.

Meanwhile the wives had taken over the kitchen. Mom built a wood fire in an old range on the screened-in back porch.  Two big enamel pots of coffee—one white and one blue with white speckles—bubbled on the fire. Stacks of heavy tan coffee mugs from the cafe downtown sat on a redwood table. The men would stomp up the back steps knocking the mud from their boots. They would remove their sap-encrusted gloves, blow on their hands and then wrap them around the mugs steaming with scalding black coffee.

Inside was a flurry of print dresses, clouds of flour, and high pitched chatter. Pies were going into or coming out of the oven. Thick stew simmered in enamel pots that matched the coffeepots on the porch.  Into the stew went potatoes, carrots, turnips and celery, jars of last summer’s home canned tomatoes, huge white lima beans that had soaked in the dish pan over night, and chunks of beef, venison, and the remains of more than one of yesterday’s turkeys. There were corn bread and biscuits, jars of pickled beets.

At noon the men lumbered in and piled the food on enameled tin plates and then took them outside to eat sitting on the fenders of their Buicks, Packards, and Studebakers or the running boards of battered ranch pickup trucks.  When the feast was gulped down, the women took turns over the steaming dishpans, scrubbing until their arms turned pink.

The Cañon City downtown where the Christmas decoration were hung about the time this postcard was published for sale over at City Drugs.

By mid-afternoon the job was done. The screen house and yard were strewn with trampled spruce twigs and scraps of tinsel.  The garlands were carefully laid out in the wagons that had brought the boughs.  The men got into their cars and trucks. Horns blaring they drove off behind the wagons to string the five blocks of downtown Main Street with the decorations.

Silence descended on the yard with the gray coming of evening.  A boy danced with unimaginable excitement.  Christmas was coming!