With this Saturday Soundtrack falling on Christmas Day, it seems only appropriate to send some gifts your way of well-loved Yuletide tunes by acoustic, folk, and roots musicians. We’ll begin with performances of four of my favorite tunes of the season — Carol of the Bells, In the Bleak Midwinter, Star in the East, and The Wexford Carol — followed by holiday sets from some roots and acoustic musicians I treasure.
Carol of the Bells
There are many versions of Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich‘s Christmas song that didn’t begin as a Christmas song. At the annual Celtic Christmas concert hosted by the Institute of Musical Traditions earlier this month, guitarist Robin Bullock played his beautiful arrangement of Carol of the Bells, which is still my choice for this melodic, haunting tune.
In the Bleak Midwinter — based on a poem by Christina Rossetti — is one of Candice’s most beloved songs of the season. I also cherish the combination of words and music speaking to hope and life springing from the darkness. Two years ago, I featured a post on the forward-looking folk stylings of Kate Rusby. Included among the tunes from her new (at that time) Christmas album was Bleak Mid-Winter (Yorkshire).
Ken Kolodner, Elke Baker, and Robin Bullock played a version of the tune on their newest album On a Cold Winter’s Day and they performed it live at the IMT Celtic Christmas concert earlier this month.
Acoustic guitarist Doyle Dykes has a lovely version of In the Bleak Midwinter. He is followed by one of the pioneers of the English folk revival, Scottish musician Bert Jansch, with a rendition — filmed through the haze of cigarette smoke — from 1975. Finally, I include a nice arrangement by Tall Heights, an electrofolk duo based in Boston.
Star in the East
The Southern Harmony shape-note tune Star in the East is one of those Yuletide songs not heard as frequently as it deserves, yet it has always been a personal favorite, with the lyrics pointing to what’s really important.
Vainly we offer each ample oblation, / Vainly with gifts we his favor secure; / Richer by far is the heart’s adoration, / Nearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
We’ll begin with a traditional version, sung by one of the country’s premier early music groups, The Rose Ensemble from St. Paul. Their rendition is followed by folk singer John McCutcheon’s arrangement from 1984.
A long-time IMT favorite is the duo of Al Petteway and Amy White. I hope you’ll enjoy Al and Amy’s take on Star in the East, which they pair as part of a medley with Born in Bethney.
The Wexford Carol
The Wexford Carol is one of Ireland’s oldest Christmas carols.
It is one of the oldest surviving carols in the European tradition. Dating back to the 12th century the Wexford Carol is also known by its first line “Good people, all this Christmas time.”
I’m going to give top billing for this tune to the trio Síle: Lizzy Hewitt on vocals, Olivia Barrett on fiddle, and Ellen Gibling on harp. Síle “blends fiddle, harp, and voice in delicate, thoughtful arrangements of Irish traditional and folk music.” Their beautiful rendition of this carol was released last December.
The other vocal version of The Wexford Carol I’ve included features the much more famous Alison Krauss, Yo-Yo Ma, and Natalie MacMaster in a 2009 video that’s been viewed more than 4 million times. The arrangement and the musicianship, as one would expect, are sublime. That is followed by an instrumental version by the group Nightnoise.
Shifting to sets of tunes by some of my favorite acoustic artists playing songs from the winter solstice and Yuletide, we’ll continue with the music of Nightnoise, an ensemble “active from 1984 to 1997. Their original blend of Irish traditional music, Celtic music, jazz, and classical chamber music inspired a generation of Irish musicians.”
The seasonal Snow on High Ground is a favorite I hope you’ll enjoy. I’ve also included their version of another chestnut, The Holly and the Ivy, which is featured in different renditions later in this post as well.
Al Petteway and Amy White
These YouTube videos of Al and Amy’s Yultide tunes give you a chance to see them play live as we have at IMT: the medley Joy to the World/The Gift and the festive Breakin’ Up Christmas.
Al and Amy also have a beautiful arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy…
…which leads me into the work of the next musician.
Alex De Grassie
Fingerstyle guitar master and composer Alex De Grassie also plays a notable arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy. The video that follows is the audio of a Christmas medley by De Grassie, beginning with Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, followed by Once in Royal David’s City. In a slightly different mode, De Grassie and west coast Americana group The Real Sarahs have also just released their arrangement of the traditional Dona Nobis Pacem.
Custer LaRue and the Baltimore Consort
And this Christmas Day post will end with three tunes from my friend Custer LaRue with the Baltimore Consort from their 2009 Bright Day Star album. One music critic rightly described it as “One of the finest Christmas recordings ever made…” We begin with the traditional Cherry Tree Carol, followed by the sprightly instrumental A Christmas Jig, and end with the delightful Hey for Christmas! written by John Playford.
Happy Yuletide to you and yours!
More to come…