Singing In the New Year

Swallow in flight ~ Susan Scheid

On October 5, 1921, the Ukrainian National Chorus performed before a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall. A song known as Shchedryk, already popular in other parts of the world, was particularly well-received. Composed by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, it drew on traditional folk melodies commonly heard in that country during celebrations of the Orthodox New Year (January 14 in the Gregorian calendar).

Eventually, American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s work. Its bell-like ostinato inspired him to write new lyrics, attempting to capture the sound for his choir. After copyrighting and publishing the song in 1936, several choirs under Wilhousky’s direction began performing “Carol of the Bells” during the Christmas season.

Thanks in part to his Czech heritage, Wilhousky knew the old Slavic legend that, at midnight on the evening Jesus was born, bells began ringing spontaneously in his honor. His ability to capture that echo of ringing bells helped to make “Carol of the Bells” extraordinarily popular, especially in the United States and Canada. 

Though nearly two hundred instrumental and vocal arrangments exist, and despite the occasional use of “The Ukrainian Carol” for a title, neither Leontovych’s Shchedryk nor the folk tunes it drew from make any mention of bells, or of Christmas. The song we know as a Christmas carol began life as a Ukrainian New Year’s carol: one with distinctly pagan tendencies.
(more…)

The Jingle Bell Boys

For years, the bells remained hidden. Forgotten at the bottom of the cedar chest, buried beneath a red plaid wool stadium blanket, two angora collars, several pieces of handmade lace, and my grandparents’ wedding photo, their silence was ensured.

Because the lid to the chest was kept locked, I needed help each birthday and Christmas to open it, so that I could retrieve the small, beaded bag that held my growing collection of silver dollars.

One year, I asked permission to look through the other treasures hidden away in the depths of the chest. Out they came: the blanket, the lace, the photos. As I moved a small box of jewelry, I heard a faintly musical jingle. Pulling at the sound, I lifted up a cracked leather strap with a dozen or more bells attached. Delighted, I gave the strap a shake, and then another.

Hearing the racket, my mother came to see what I was doing. When she saw the bells, she grew nostalgic. The harness strap and bells had belonged to her grandfather. They didn’t have a sleigh, but they did have a homemade box sled, and they had a horse. During the horse’s respite from field labor, he contributed to winter festivities: pulling children (and the occasional adult) along the roads. Despite the sled’s plain, homespun nature, my mother confessed she felt like the fanciest lady in the world during those rides: transported, for a time, into a world of elegance and beauty.
(more…)

Published in: on December 27, 2015 at 11:05 pm  Comments (97)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

La Danse de Mardi Gras

Say “Mardi Gras,” and it’s almost guaranteed: most people will think first of New Orleans. Other cities have their celebrations, but only in New Orleans has the combination of beads, bare breasts, fancy-dress balls, beer and Bourbon Street been elevated to high art.

In Cajun country, there’s no lack of beer and beads, but the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras at the center of the celebration has a slightly different emphasis: community, Capitaines, charity and chickens. (Yes, chickens. More about that later.)

In places like Iota, Church Point, Eunice and Mamou, the Mardi gras (when used as a plural for participants, it’s pronounced “grahz”) prepare for the courir, or run, under the direction of their Capitaine.  On horseback or in wagons, they visit surrounding farms, collecting ingredients for the communal gumbo that will be served later that night.

In exchange for rice, potatoes, or even a chicken, the Mardi gras frolic for the entertainment of the farmer and his family, singing a variation of a song known variously as  La Danse de Mardi Gras or La [Vieille] Chanson de Mardi Gras. A mainstay in Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations, and often heard in dance halls or concerts, the song may be the oldest in the Cajun repertoire.
(more…)

Published in: on February 14, 2015 at 10:37 am  Comments (91)  
Tags: , , , ,

The Kingfisher’s Carol


The Common Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis

When it comes to Christmas, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. My traditions may be idiosyncratic, but it just isn’t Christmas without pickled herring, a string of cranberries on the tree, bayberry candles, and Medieval carols. Pink and lavender trees, Mannheim Steamroller, and Elves on the Shelves will come and go, but I’m satisfied with my old ways, and probably always will be.

Still, there are times when something new emerges from the clutter and cacaphony of the season and attracts my attention. Last year, it was a snippet of song that stopped me in the yogurt aisle of a local grocery.  Light and rhythmic, it lilted through the store: a memorable melody with words sung in a language I couldn’t decipher.
(more…)

Planet Clapton

He’d been around, of course.  I was the one not paying attention.

In those early years, as he moved from the increasingly commercialized Yardbirds to John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, I was being introduced to Tom Paxton and Lead Belly. While I practiced my 12-string, Cream (Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Clapton) came and went in just two years, disbanding a few months before Woodstock. 

After Cream, Clapton formed a new group.  Derek and the Dominos released Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in December of 1970. A tale first told by the Persian poet Nizami, the story of Layla and Majnun became one of rock’s definitive love songs: its famously contrasting movements composed separately by Clapton and Jim Gordon. (more…)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,854 other followers