Our next three Christmas comps come from above the 49th parallel yet again - O Canada... Bill's home and native land!
Bill Huot of Victoria, British Columbia sent us this rustic trio of Christmas samplers last year at the P.O. Box in one package and a separate letter of explanation.
It was the first of only two times that I sat transfixed in the parking lot of the Fort Wayne main post office reading and reviewing the contents of the package, the extensive liner notes of each comp, and accompanying letter.
Bill's letter of intro read as follows:
"I just discovered your website yesterday, after discovering Lee Hartsfeld's site last week. I am not very familiar with the world of blogs and Internet file-sharing.
"I have been putting together Christmas compilations since 1995 as an alternative to buying Christmas cards.
"I became interested in the history of the songs themselves, and in the unique (I don't use that word lightly) place that this music has in our culture.
"For 20 years I was the senior policy analyst with British Columbia's Heritage Branch, developing legislation and programs to conserve aspects of our tangible cultural heritage (archaeological sites, heritage buildings, shipwrecks, etc.).
"The traditional Christmas songs are part of our intangible cultural heritage. I really like the fact that we collectively preserve songs that are decades or centuries old as part of our living tradition.
"In most areas of pop culture we jerk along from fad to fad, with the old constantly being pushed aside by changing fashions. But Christmas songs have a staying power that seems to be immune to corporate marketing efforts (CAPT'S NOTE: TESTIFY!)
"By and large, the formula for a successful Christmas album requires that the performer interpret the old standards. An album of all or mostly new songs is unlikely to sell well.
"I became intrigued that (since the early 1950s) we are so resistant to the introduction of any new songs into the cannon of 'Holiday Favourites'.
"Somehow, for reasons I do not understand, these songs preserve themselves as part of our living traditions, despite efforts of publishers, songwriters, and performers to innovate.
"In 2000, I decided to put out a special millennium sampler that included songs from each of the past 10 centuries, along with liner notes explaining the history of the songs and their times.
"Since then, this has turned into a major hobby. My collection of recordings (mostly commercially-recorded CDs) has grown by leaps and bounds, and my samplers have become more thematic. On the back of this page are descriptions of the eight Christmas and Yuletide samplers I've created on CD."
HOLY HUDSON BAY! An honest to goodness Canadian government official who happens to be a Christmas music enthusiast! I was simply floored! I spent the next 20 minutes in the post office parking lot looking at the three booklets that came with the samplers Bill had sent - extensive, thorough, and informative! I couldn't wait to actually LISTEN to the music!
For even MORE background info, I've asked Bill a set of questions that I will be asking everyone whose comp will be reviewed here:
1.) When did you begin creating your Christmas compilations?
In 1995. I had recently separated from my wife of 25 years. She got the cassettes; I got the vinyls. About two weeks before Christmas I spent a Saturday afternoon compiling a 60 minute mix-tape from the 20 or so Christmas vinyls that we had accumulated over the years, and I sent out about 20 copies as my Christmas card for friends and relatives. This has mushroomed since then both as an annual Christmas compilation project and as a growing collection of Christmas/seasonal albums.
2.) Explain the process on creating your Christmas comp.
The process keeps evolving. These days I usually start during the previous Christmas season with a concept or theme. I go through my albums looking for likely candidates that fit the concept / theme and rip them as MP3s. I tend to eschew the usual Christmas standards. I especially like songs that hover at the edge of my recognition / memory as music from Christmases past. But I am always looking for songs that I enjoy as music - not just Christmassy music.
I accumulate many more selections than I can use. I end up listening to the candidate songs several times over the next several months. The first time I have an urge to skip to the end of a song I either drop it or edit it to be shorter. (Some songs/performances are great but they wear out their welcome by going on too long.) Sometime in the summer I winnow the songs down to a first draft. The songs are organized in the comp along the lines of musical movements in a symphony. I take great care to place each song in a context that brings out its best.
In my samplers the liner notes are equally as important as the selections; I work on drafts of liner notes in parallel to the working drafts of the CD. Sometimes I drop a good song because I can't think of anything interesting to say about it. As the structure of the sampler begins to fall into place I usually identify unfilled niches, so I go through my collection again looking for the perfect songs to fill them. Sometimes I'll buy more albums to get just the right song. By about Draft 8 or 9 (about mid-November) I have a 79 minute CD that I really like.
Of course, a major part of the process is accumulating the songs to chose from in the first place. So far, I have worked only from albums that I have in hand -- bought, borrowed, checked out of the library, or been given as a gift. After that first year I began to actively seek out more Christmas albums in order to have a better choice of selections.
I mostly look for currently-available CDs that reflect my own musical tastes, with my core interests being British and North American folk music, shape-note and West Gallery songs, and more recently, early music (medieval, renaissance, etc). But I also grab targets of opportunity and introduce myself to new genres. I now have about 500 Christmas albums.
3.) Who do you share these compilations with? How many do you send out?
I mail out about 40 to friends and relatives, and distribute another 200 or so to local friends, colleagues, casual acquaintances, etc. Most go to people I know through the local folk music community, members of a choir that I am in, or people that I work with (I'm a government bureaucrat).
I usually have a couple with me throughout December. Some go to waitresses, check-out people at stores, mechanics, etc. If I go to a church service, Christmas pageant or performance I always bring some along to give to singers, musicians and/or choir directors.
I just this year discovered the Christmas music blogs as a new source of songs, information and inspiration, and found that I am not the only person afflicted with this strange obsession. So I mailed some samplers off to bloggers whose efforts I admire and appreciate, and whose own postings I have downloaded. I am willing to trade with other Christmas compoholics.
4.) What is it about Christmas music that appeals to you?
I am an amateur folklorist, a former professional heritage conservationist, and now have seemed to have evolved into a Christmas music historian. We, the people, preserve Christmas music as one of the truest forms of folk music. Many people who insist that they "never sing" will occasionally sing Happy Birthday, For He's a Jolly Good Fellow, maybe the National Anthem, ... and the first verse and/or chorus to about 30 Christmas songs!
Almost all of the Christmas standards are over 50 years old; many are over 100 years old; and some are over 300 years old. Until relatively recently melodies and lyrics were often thought of as interchangeable. Christmas lyrics were grafted onto the melodies of familiar traditional or pop songs. Therefore, our Christmas repertoire is like a living time-capsule of many generations of musical styles and creativity.
That said, however, I find myself most drawn to obscure songs that either were once popular but are now forgotten, or which are great songs that never managed to catch on.
Christmas music obviously has a special place in our culture and we have a huge shared heritage of beloved Christmas music. Yet, no other holiday or time of the year has any significant body of music that has withstood the test of time in our popular culture. It makes for an interesting challenge trying to figure out why this is so.
5.) What kind of feedback do you get from the comp?
I know that some people like my samplers a lot, and they really look forward to getting one each year. For the most part, the people who give me feedback say that they like that my selections are not the same ol' same ol', and the fact that they get introduced to new and unexpected musical genres. Some really appreciate my liner notes.
I tell people that my aim is for everyone to be able to find new songs to love, some to hate, and not too much in between. I usually find that the songs that some people hate are on other people's most-loved lists.
I assume that there are some folks who don't like my samplers at all. I hope that they pass them along to people who have good taste!
6.) What other projects/websites do you work on other than Christmas?
I don't have a website. My other principle musical interests are collecting and singing sea shanties and other nautical music, sing bass in a community choir, go to about 6 music festivals or camps each year, and I play the theremin. I am also an amateur astronomer (mostly big binoculars) and I collect folk art, malt whisky and slide rules.
7.) Anything you would like to share with people reading this review?
Yes, but I've already blathered on way too much. (CAPT'S NOTE: Says who?)
BILL'S 2004 CHRISTMAS SAMPLER TRACK REVIEW:
1.) Recorded at the dawn of the big band era, this quaint song is a great way to open a CD. From the outstanding Christmas comp "The Spirit Of Christmas Past" from Living Era.
2.) I still stump people with this one: What was Gene Autry's first big Christmas hit? Most people say "Rudolph" and =GAMESHOW BUZZER=! Check out my yuleblog entry about Autry written two months ago!
3.) Lovely song by Canada's yodeling cowboy Wilf Carter. From his 1965 "Christmas In Canada" album.
4.) Penny Seeger takes the melody from Leadbelly's "Christmas Is A-Comin" and folks it up - not bad but I prefer Leadbelly's version! Rounder's "American Folk Songs For Christmas" is where this came from.
5.) Nothing like a folk recording from a Boston school in 1955 to get you excited! From the same Rounder album as above.
6.) Three folk songs in a row! Recorded live at an annual Christmas folk concert held on Vancouver Island.
7.) Miss Piggy takes the lead, aided by Gonzo, Scooter, and Robin in this fun take on an old British wassail song. Bill notes in his liners that the "other" Ray Charles helped the Muppets arrange these songs! Bravo Ray!
8.) Take a melody of the British wassail song "Hey Ho, Nobody Home", add some folkish holiday lyrics, and you get this stirring song. On the "Twas The Night Like This" CD at FolkLegacy.com.
9.) A 40 second song about elves, sung in Chipmunk voice, and based on an old traditional German song. Chalk another brilliant idea to Christine Lavin who headed this song up.
10.) GREAT JUMPIN' ICEBERGS!!! Nowell Sing We Clear take "Rudolph" and meld it into an 18th century tune! What a unique interpretation! Find more about the album where this came from and order it here!
11.) Not a Christmas song... I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will indeed! But this song is a lot of fun and captures the spirit of Christmas!
12.) Haven't heard this song in decades! I heard this sung at a choir concert back in my HS days! Very nice version by the group Straw Into Gold.
13.) Belafonte celebrated his 80th birthday last week - here's to 80 more Harry! A beautiful selection off his 1958 Christmas album "To Wish You A Merry Christmas".
14.) What a perfect place for some soothing Christmas musical box music! Only 1:00 in length? That was too quick... when did I ever say that about music boxes?
15.) A gothic Christmas ballad - lilting and lush... too cool! Read the lyrics for this one - soap operas seldom have this much drama! Released in 2000 on Beautiful Jo Records.
16.) An entire generation has been raised listening to Raffi's music... heaven help us!
17.) This isn't a Christmas song I'm afraid. Good message from the Kidpower Chorus though.
18.) Definitely not a Christmas song - but hearing Pete Seeger leading kids sing this simple song of tolerance gave me shivers. We need more Pete Seegers in this world.
19.) GREAT JUMPIN' ICEBERGS!!! I've about heard everything now! John would have been pleased and Yoko would be trying to shakedown someone connected to it for money. Didn't John base part of this song on the folk song "Stewball"?
20.) Sweet! The classic 1962 rock instrumental of Tchaikovsky's "March of the Wooden Soldiers". Interesting liner note from Bill: B. Bumble & The Stingers never had a stable lineup - the best studio musicians of the day laid down their tracks when they could!
21.) Surprisingly listenable track from the Albion Band's 1986 Christmas album. Amazon has an import Christmas album from these guys available.
22.) LAUGHING! Trinity takes an old shanty and adds lyrics like "Snow's piled up five feet or more, I'm bound for work this morning." I'll accept this as a Christmas song!
23.) Acappella song about various snowmen and their adventures against the sun, wind, and the like. Fun but not Christmas I'm afraid.
24.) Odd Bodkin had a great premise: Santa gets bought out by a conglomerate but the world's kids reinstate Santa. However, it goes on about two minutes more than it should. Find this verbose song on "A Child's Celebration Of Christmas".
25.) Nice to hear some Delta blues! Big Jim McLean describes how even the jolly ol' fat man gets the blues sometimes! Off the "Stony Plain Christmas Blues" CD.
26.) The Bobs' "Too Many Santas" CD has great Christmas gems like this one - a reggae flavored take on the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick".
27.) I've heard about this song for a long time - finally get to hear it. These guys must be drunk! Sounds like fun... jury's out on this one!
28.) A cajun version of a Negro spiritual done by Canada's version of the Andrews Sisters - Heather, Cookie, and Raylene Rankin! From their "Do You Hear..." CD.
29.) Whoaaa! The Tarbox Ramblers take the familiar "Last Month Of The Year" and really, REALLY pump some life into it! Goodness, this is good!
30.) Very nice song from the Canadian girl group Quartette. Their "It's Christmas" CD is always good for a listen!
31.) Pretty song from the "A Christmas Together" CD. Gotta drag this one out and relisten to it. My three year old daughter might get a kick out of it.
I've chosen not to review the 2005 and 2006 samplers. If you look closely at the playlists for each, you'll discover a wide, wide selection of folk songs, traditional old Christmas wassails, forgotten melodies that can haunt your very soul, and acapella songs that would stir any spirit. Mere explanation would not do these songs justice.
I'm also not an authority on such diverse music as Bill Huot is. His Christmas ear is so finely in tune with this type of Christmas music and it shows. When I sat in the parking lot of the post office, pouring over all the liner notes and listening to the 2004 sampler, I knew I had my work cut out for me.
These are not just ordinary Christmas samplers - these are history lessons. Each song carries with it a tradition or a significance much more evolved than the origins of "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer". What I feared mostly in that parking lot came 66% true - I couldn't pull this one off.
Bill, your samplers are nothing like I've heard before in my 23 years in dealing with Christmas music. You've opened a whole new world of music that has been handed down from century to century. A song like "Vrieder var pa Ving-porr" may not be easily known now, but back in Iceland in the 13th century, this could have been the equivalent of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" today in popularity and stature.
I'm very humbled. I thank you Bill for sending me this special music. I hope this small ray of light will get more of this Christmas music noticed and never forgotten.
UP NEXT: Jeffrey Cox's Audio Christmas Cards 2000 & 2001