Music to My Ears

The Great Christmas Hymns

I was brought up Catholic because my mother was Irish and my father didn’t care. I never saw him in a church. At a certain point my mom stopped going. But the kids were still kicked out of bed every Sunday and mom drove us until eventually everyone but me stopped going. I continued to walk to Mass until I went off to college. At one point I actually considered the priesthood, a fact that causes general hilarity among those who know me.

I was enthralled with the Bible stories, the messages of hope and redemption, as well as the pomp and ceremony which no religion does better than the Catholics. And at no time of the year is that more impressive than at Christmastime. My heart would almost burst from my chest as I sang those hymns with the congregation. The big pipe organ would swell the air with the power of the melodies and carry the joy of the birth of a savior into our souls and back out through our lungs. The season still carries that joy for me, despite my missed calling, and the music continues to sing.

As a kid I looked forward to the season so much that with the first snow I would haul out the only Christmas album we had and play it. Since I grew up in Connecticut the first snow could fly in early November. But mom would lose her mind if she heard the sound of Bing Crosby come out of my room before Thanksgiving.

The album was Bing’s classic White Christmas. The first side had the hymns and side 2 the fun songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” I’ve written about these two songs before because the tracks were recorded in the ’40s with wonderful swing arrangements and Der Bingle backed by the incomparable Andrews Sisters. If you’ve never heard these renditions and you think you’ll gag if you hear one more recording of either of those old sappy songs, swallow your pride and check this album out. It’s a gas.

Let’s talk about the religious Christmas songs in various versions like on White Christmas.

“Adeste Fideles” or “O Come All Ye Faithful” is perhaps the oldest. This one goes back so far we’re talking before the printing press was invented, when manuscripts were written by monks who also gave us beer. God bless ’em.

The original printing has been attributed to multiple sources. It’s possible the text goes back to the 13th century but the first printed manuscript was discovered in the library of the “Musician King,” King John IV of Portugal and dated in the mid-1600s. In modern hymnals, authorship is credited to John Francis Wade from the mid-1700s but the song was probably much older than that. Fortunately, I couldn’t care less how old it is or who actually wrote it. The power of this song is evident with sweet entreaty. Here is “Adeste Fidelis” from the Bingman himself.

 

“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,” or “Silent Night” to heathens, came much later. I love this story. On Christmas Eve in 1818 the pastor of the St. Nicholas Church at Oberndorf bei Salzburg in Austria was desperate. The Salzach River had flooded damaging the church and had put the pipe organ out of commission with Christmas Eve service coming up that night. That pastor, Joseph Franz Mohr, walked to a friend’s house in the next village looking for a guitar accompaniment to a poem Mohr had written. Franz Xaver Gruber wrote the melody in a few hours and the new song was performed for that night’s service. One of the most popular Christmas songs ever composed was done in a day and immediately began gaining fame.

By 1832 the song was being performed by traveling Austrian folk singers and a few notes of the melody were changed. The hymn is considered a national treasure in Austria and traditionally should not be played there before Christmas Eve. But being a heathen I will break with tradition and let you hear it now.

 

“O Holy Night” is one of my favorites to sing. It is filled with such passion and a pleading that you can imagine falling to your knees with joy at the miracle being performed. Sung from the perspective of a shepherd seeing angels rejoicing in the heavens on the night of the birth of Christ, its power is so compelling it stirs the greatest singers to exquisite heights.

“O Holy Night” was commissioned as a poem in 1843 by the pastor of the church of Roquemaure in southern France. He knew a local wine merchant who was also a poet and the pastor asked Placide Cappeau to commemorate a renovated organ with a Christmas poem. Amazingly Cappeau was not a particularly religious man. But he nailed this one. Later that year music was added by Adolphe Adam.

One of the great Christmas singers is Johnny Mathis and he does this sweetly.

 

Another wonderful Christmas album is The Christmas Song originally recorded by Nat King Cole as The Magic of Christmas in 1960. My parents bought the disc after White Christmas and it became a favorite in my childhood and again for my kids. On that album is a recording that is very special and for me defines the start of the season.

“A Cradle in Bethlehem” was written by Larry Stock and Alfred Bryan. This is an obscure song; if you look up Alfred Bryan you will see a long list of titles but this is not on it. I have never heard another recording of it. Yet this is the most gorgeous of the Christmas songs and sung with perfection by Mr. Cole, arguably the greatest singer of all time and certainly one of the most expressive. Please enjoy. This one is superb.

 

Finally a recording of a song written in 1948 by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, popularized by Elvis Presley in 1957.

In 2012 I was driving a truck long haul for Trans Am as an independent contractor. I would own my truck once I wrestled her away from the bank but until that happened I wasn’t making a lot of money. The lease on the truck was $900 a week. You were paid by the mile so the only way to make money was to keep the wheels rolling. You gotta stay out there.

Christmas has been and still is a very special time of the year. The season kicked off by Thanksgiving is full of joy and wonder. But being on the road constantly is rough; the loneliness has a hard edge to it that you have to deal with every day. That edge becomes sharp during the holidays. For many folks and for many reasons.

During Christmas 2012 truckers for Trans Am were offered a bonus if they stayed out until after the new year. We needed the money so I had to do it. Christmas Eve found me at a truck stop on US 55 just above the Tennessee border and in a raging blizzard. I had eaten at the truck stop and was trudging back through a foot of deepening snow to my Kenworth T700. My mood was low. Knowing back home everyone was gathered and missing me as much as I was missing them puts a lump in my throat even now as I tell the story.

I had been planning to record a special Christmas song for my wife. I had a guitar in the truck. When I got back in the truck and shook off the snow I downloaded a copy of Audacity for recording and learned how to use it in about an hour. I recorded “Blue Christmas” with the background vocals for Diana since it told the story of our situation and because she is a huge Elvis fan.

If you listen closely you can hear the booming of the wind against the truck.

For some reason, she doesn’t like this rendition. Women.

Happy Christmas to every one of you!