Monday, December 24, 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 14 (and Out)

Well, here it is Christmas Eve again, and boys and girls of all ages good and not-so-good alike are already climbing into their beds and trying to go to sleep. As appealing a notion as that may be, there will be no sleep here until the chief annual mission of this blog has been completed in full – namely, providing some background on the individual tracks that appear on this year's annual holiday mix. This year’s mix is called Here Comes Santa Claus, it runs for just under 80 minutes and consists of 38 tracks. We've only got two more to go, and since this is a big night, I need to be quick about it. Everybody ready? On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner, On Blitzen . . . 

Track 38
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Caleb and the Caroling Caravan (2011)
Caleb Groh (left) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (right)
The closing song for this year’s CD is one of my very favorite Christmas songs, for it captures what I consider one of the most powerful and enduring messages of the season – faith and hope that amidst any temporary sadness and despair, the Lord’s grace shall bring peace and solace. The lyrics to this song were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the depths of the American Civil War. Longfellow was despondent, and barely able to get out of bed each morning. His wife had died in a terrible home fire in 1861, and shortly before the Christmas season of 1863 he learned that his son had been seriously wounded in the Army of the Potomac.  Sitting down at his desk on Christmas Day with the bells of the nearby churches in Harvard Square ringing in the background, Longfellow wrote these lines: 

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!"

Longfellow's poem was first published in a children's magazine in 1865 under the title "Christmas Bells," and it became quite popular. It was first set to music in 1872 by British organist and composer John Baptiste Calkin in a version that remains the standard today. This version was recorded by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, among others. A second version was later written by Johnny Marks, who's best known for composing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Marks' version has been recorded by such artists as Frank Sinatra, Sarah McLachlan, Harry Belafonte, Bing Crosby and The Carpenters. Both the Calkin and Marks versions omit the third, fourth and fifth verses of Longfellow's original poem.

The version I chose to end this year's CD is by Caleb and the Caroling Caravan, an indie group created by Boston indie folk artist Caleb Groh, who's also recorded under the name Happiest Lion. Caleb and the Caroling Caravan has released two albums to date, both of which consist entirely of holiday music. The first is a self-titled album that was released in 2009, and the second, titled Volume 2, was released the following year. Both are available on iTunes or amazon. I like this group's version of the song because of its thoughtful, almost melancholy tone, which strikes me as especially appropriate in light of Longfellow's powerful lyrics.
However dark the skies sometimes appear, and however far justice and right may occasionally appear, I have come to believe that right will ultimately prevail. In the end, the train of human history follows a righteous track. Such is the power of the holiday season that against such overwhelming despair, Longfellow could find the ringing church bells a message of hope and optimism. May those who suffer find the same this season, and may the coming new year bring solace and comfort to one and all.

Track 37
The Christmas Gift, by Andy Griffith (2004)
I've always enjoyed The Andy Griffith Show. It’s one of those “comfort shows” that seem to make people feel better after some bad news or a rough day. I realize that it’s an unrealistic picture of American life, and that, like most television fare, it glosses over hundreds of vexing social issues, but sometimes we need to see something that’s simple, homespun and better than the cold reality around us. Andy Griffith had a long and very successful career in film, television, stand-up comedy and music, but to me he'll always be fair-minded and thoughtful Sheriff Andy Taylor. As an attorney, I couldn't bear to watch Griffith's later TV series, Matlock, which took incredible liberties with the rules of evidence and criminal procedure for dramatic effect. It's also difficult to watch Griffith in the classic film "A Face in the Crowd," for although his acting was superb, the character he played was so much darker than Andy Taylor that I almost felt betrayed. And while Griffith took pains to assert that he was a very different man than Sheriff Taylor, that's how I'll always think of him – well, that and the courageous private citizen who recorded ads in favor of President Obama's election in 2008 and the President's health care reforms in 2010, commercials that alienated large portions of his Southern fan base at the time. This particular track is taken from Griffith's 2004 album The Christmas Guest: Songs and Stories of Christmas. I was torn between including this track on my CD this year and using an excerpt from the one holiday episode of The Andy Griffith Show. This track is a little corny, I suppose, but it's an important and inspirational message from an important and inspirational man.

That's the end of our main story for this year, and I hope it's been useful to have some additional information about the tracks on this year's CD. Please be sure to check out my holiday music blog at www.marksholidaymixcds.net for more, and note that this year's release will likely be available only through New Year's Day. We'll feature a few more blog posts before this blog begins its long winter's nap, so check back from time to time here, too.

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