Before Spotify, CDs, tape recorders, radios, and gramophones, to enjoy music you either had to attend a concert or make it yourself. In those days, it was typical for a family to own musical instruments (a piano, at least), to collect songbooks, and to serenade one another at social gatherings and as after-dinner entertainment. As a result, many cultures — especially the Scots and the Irish — developed a distinctive genre of folk music, with a wide range of ballads and airs, jigs and reels, and emphasis on melodic simplicity and storytelling.
In my view, the best Christmas songs are not the straightforwardly commercial ones that play as background music in shopping malls, but rather folk songs and religious carols with meaning and depth. Many of us are downsizing our celebrations this year on account of the pandemic. Still, we have music technology providing access to high-quality past performances and studio recordings. To get you started this Christmas season, here are some of my favorites.
“Arthur McBride and the Sergeant”
While the Irish anti-war folk ballad “Arthur McBride and the Sergeant” may not be a conventional “Christmas song,” it does include the repeated refrain “for it being on Christmas morning,” which has always struck me as important moral context.
The story is about an unnamed narrator and his cousin, Arthur McBride, who are approached by a recruiting sergeant from the British army, whom they deservedly give a telling off. The song is thought to have been written by Patrick Weston Joyce in Limerick, around 1840, which was around the time of the great famine. Christmas lingers in the background of this song as a symbol of hope, peace, and good cheer and ultimately defeats the menacing threat of war. The song was covered by Bob Dylan and Planxty, but the best version by far is Paul Brady’s, which features a stunningly intricate guitar accompaniment.
“Fairytale of New York”
The gritty anti-sentimentalism of The Pogues’s “Fairytale Of New York” has sometimes misled listeners into understanding it as an “anti-Christmas” Christmas song. But this is wrong, in my view. Human brokenness is the very reason Christmas was needed in the first place. Anyway, written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan, and performed as a duet between MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, the song explores the darker side to some experiences of the modern Irish diaspora in New York. (This year marks the 20th anniversary since MacColl died in a terrible boating accident.)
“Fairytale” is a story about falling in and out of love, alcoholism, promiscuity, misspent youth, and broken dreams. It is all neatly summed up in those immortal lines,
“I could have been someone.”
“Well so could anyone. You took my dreams from me when I first found you.”
“I took them with me babe, I put them with my own. Can’t make it all alone. I’ve built my dreams around you.”
McGowan visited the writer J. P. Donleavy to get his approval for borrowing the title from his (1973) novel, “A Fairy Tale of New York.” The song is also a tribute to the familiar insight that the gate to success in the Big Apple is a narrow one, but that this doesn’t stop people from trying. “They’ve got cars big as bars/They’ve got rivers of gold /But the wind goes right through you/ It’s no place for the old/When you first took my hand on that cold Christmas Eve/ You promise me Broadway was waiting for me.”
In our age of hypersensitivity, the song has become “controversial” among certain “woke” types, and so the BBC announced it would be playing an edited version on Radio 1 this Christmas, removing the words “faggot” and “slut.” (The original will still play on Radio 2.)
Joni Mitchell’s brilliantly poignant song begins with a musical allusion to “Jingle Bells,” and then dives immediately into the melancholic first verse, “It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down trees/They’re putting up reindeer/Singing songs of joy and peace. /Oh, I wish I had a river/ I could skate away on.” Mitchell wrote it in 1970 following her breakup with Graham Nash, whom she dumped via a telegram while she was in Crete. Last year, the song was covered by Ellie Goulding and did very well commercially, though her version is nowhere near as good as the original.
The story of “Stille Nacht,” now 204 years old, is that it was written by a Catholic priest, Joseph Mohr, in a small Austrian village on Christmas Eve, not long after the Napoleonic wars. His text was then set to music by the choir director Franz Xaver Gruber. According to legend, the organ had been damaged by flooding, and so the Mohr accompanied the choir himself with guitar. This unquestionably would have afforded the song a folky element, which helped it spread around the world by two families of traveling folk singers (no, not the Von Trapps). The song eventually made its way before the King of Prussia, and then to New York City. Bing Crosby’s 1935 version, which has sold over 30 million copies, is the third best-selling single of all time.
“In the Bleak Midwinter”
The best thing ever to come out of the Reformation was the English choral tradition that gave rise to a number of beautiful hymns, especially during the 19th century. Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” originally titled “A Christmas Carol,” is a poem in its own right and was published in 1875 alongside her narrative epic “Goblin Market.” “What can I give him, poor as I am?/ If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; /If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; /Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”
As a child, I always found the extra “I” in the last line awkward, but now I find it endearing. It also makes far more sense, rhythmically, to sing.
There are two famous musical settings of the text, one by Gustav Holst (1906) and the other by Harold Darke (1909). I can never decide which I like better, so here are both, performed by the famous choir at King’s College, Cambridge.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
The joy expressed in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is difficult to surpass. Set to Mendelssohn’s glorious tune, the song has seen a lyrical evolution under the influence of different contributors — Charles Wesley (1739) and George Whitefield (1758) — and is in that respect, if nothing else, quite folky! For sopranos (such as myself), the song has one of the best choral descants ever written.
I always get a lump in my throat when everyone sings it at the Bailey household at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, followed immediately after by that Scottish classic, “Auld Lang Syne.”
On the subject of Christmas music, this year I have dropped my own single, “Christmas in George Square,” which contains both religious and folk themes. It tells the story of a depressed person and a homeless man who have a meaningful encounter in Glasgow city center on Christmas Eve.