A hallmark of Christmas is the music of the season. We are all too familiar with the thematic elements of the overly cute, romantic, sentimental and of course, sacred songs of the holiday season.
When you think about it, it isn't terribly difficult to find curiously macabre songs and carols among the pack. After all, even by Christian standards, this is the celebration of a figure who was always been linked to death, beginning with a king provoked to slaughter every infant male in his realm. All of this then crowned with magical and mysterious pagan rites.
1) Down In Yon Forest
Down under that bed there runs a flood
Bells of heaven I hear them ring
Half run in water
Half run in blood
There are a number of different versions of this song, passed down through various cultures through the years. Like so many songs an early version was carried over to the US from Europe and for the most part, passed on and preserved by the people of the Appalachians, where a particularly disturbing version was collected, believed to reference the ancient custom of every few years draining the blood out of one's king onto the soil to ensure its continuing fertility.
2) Death Might Be Your Santa Claus
A recording that begins with a sermon from Reverend J.M Gates, informing adults who tell children the legend of Santa Claus are bringing Death into their homes, some nonsense about car maitenance is in there, too. Not sure what that has to do with death or Santa but according to the Reverend, it surely will seal your fate. The sermon segues into a sort of gospel type rant.
3) The Santa Claus Crave
Originally crafted by bluesman Elzadie Robinson in 1927. It contains threats of murder - to both either a Mother or Wife/Girlfriend and Santa.
You know I loved you baby, that is why we could not get along
But someday you gon' be sorry that you ever done me wrong
Oh Lord it's near Christmas time and I want to see Santa Claus
If you don't bring my baby, swear I'll break all the laws
You can hear an original version here: http://dusttodigital.bandcamp.com/track/santa-claus
4) The Coventry Carol
This carol was originally contained within a mystery play, retelling the Christmas story. This song is sung by the mothers of the little boys under the age of two, who are destined to be brutally murdered by King Herod's men. In the last lines, they say goodbye to their children.
A haunting and heartbreaking piece, sure to bring you close to tears if you happen to be a mother.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
5) The Holly and the Ivy
By far one of the most popular Christmas songs, The Holly and the Ivy, although burdened with the stamp of Christianity, maintains it's pagan fertility imagery - so obvious, there is no need to explain. We'll talk more on the significance of holly and ivy plants in the coming weeks.
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.
The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower...
Oh, how I do love Maddy Prior.
6) I Wonder as I Wander
Composer and ethnomusicologist, John Jacob Niles, was a in attendance at fundraising meeting held by evangelicals who had been ordered out of town by the police, most likely to collect songs. In his autobiography, he writes the following:
A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins.... But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.
It was from this fragment that Niles composed I Wonder As I Wander.
7) Christmas With The Devil
I cannot resist including this cover of Spinal Tap's Christmas With The Devil from Judith Owen. It's been a favorite for years. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do. The lyrics are great.
The elves are dressed in leather
And the angels are in chains
The sugar plums are rancid
And the stockings are in flames
There's a demon in my belly
And a gremlin in my brain
There's someone up the chimney hole
And Satan is his name
8) Bethlehem Down
Composer Peter Warlock was experiencing financial difficulties. He had recently befriended poet and party boy Bruce Blunt. The first account of their mutual company was from a press report detailing their arrests for being "drunk and disorderly." Lack of funds to fuel the party life prompted their collaboration on Bethlehem Down, which, in turn, won them the Daily Telegraph's annual christmas carol writing contest. The prize money funded an "immoral carouse" on Christmas Eve in 1927.
When he is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.
Above image from The Frantic Meercat - http://www.etsy.com/shop/franticmeerkat