Friday, December 13, 2019

He come from the glory

Today is Saint Lucia’s day, honoring the virgin martyr of the Diocletian persecutions in the Third Century. Saint Lucia/Lucy is associated with a crown of lights or candles, especially in Scandinavia. So last week, when my company had its holiday party at a local eatery and an Ugly Holiday Sweater contest was part of the schtick, I went full Lucy. (I have no holiday sweaters, ugly or otherwise.)

No, I didn’t put candles in my hair, but I did wrap a string of battery-powered IKEA lights around my head and that seemed to pass muster. (No one took pix; sorry.)

Well, but back to the saint. Saint Lucia is also the name of an island in the eastern Caribbean, so I believe I’m going a bit Calypso today. I just love “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy”, and why not have the King of Calypso sing it?

Belafonte is of Jamaican heritage, and the carol is Trinidadian, but whatever.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Poor younglings

Today’s Advent piece brings up the dark side of the Nativity story—the part that’s usually left out of the festivities.

On their journey following the star, the three Wise Men stopped for a spell in Jerusalem and asked King Herod for directions to where they might find the child about to be born who would rule the world. This turned out to be a costly mistake, because Herod—so the Gospels tell us—followed the time-honored Middle Eastern custom of ensuring security of his administration by ordering the slaughter of all male children up to two years of age in the vicinity of Bethlehem. (Joseph was warned by an angel, and he, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt, where the government did not separate them or put them in cages.)

(On a side note, imagine Mary, having just endured an uncomfortable journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and given birth to her first child, must have felt having to pick up and run all the way to Egypt. No returning to the comfort of her home and the support of friends. She's got to manage with a newborn, on that dag-blamed donkey for hundreds of miles, to a strange country where she doesn't speak the language, and where the hell is she going to get diapers? We should really hear more about this.)

“Coventry Carol” is from a mystery play put on annually in the city of Coventry. Not sure about the precise date, but it was documented in the 16th Century. It’s the only song to survive from that particular play, and it was sung by three women, representing all the mothers trying to reassure the children they knew were doomed.

I’m giving you two versions. The first is pretty traditional, from the Irish choral group Anúna.

This version, by Annie Lennox and the African Children’s Choir is…different.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

When hope shall sing its triumph

Moving from Appalachia to the Old World, today’s Advent music was written in the 17th Century by French cleric, playwright and poet Simon-Joseph Pellegrin. There’s a lot of energy and excitement in “O Come, Devine Messiah”. And this recording, by the Cape Breton band, Barra MacNeils, is an interesting take on it. (I could not find any choir version that I thought did justice to the piece.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A manger bed

We’re heading to Appalachia today for our Advent music. “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head” was collected by the American composer, singer and folklorist John Jacob Niles, some time in the first decades of the last century. Like his “I Wonder as I Wander”, it’s short, simple and haunting.

I had a bit of a time finding a recording that isn’t over-arranged. And I have to confess I have no idea who this Jean Watson is, but I like her version of the song.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Gratitude Monday: Strong women

On this day in 1906, Grace Brewster Murray was born in New York City. An extremely curious child, at age seven she took apart seven alarm clocks to see how they worked; she would have kept on, but her mother caught her. That curiosity led her to a pioneering career in computer science, where—among other things—she developed the compiler and pushed the idea of developing English-based programming languages rather than machine-based ones.

As Grace Hopper (the husband lasted only 15 years, but she kept his surname) she retired from the US Navy three times before they quit calling her back to active duty. I watched her final retirement ceremony on TV in 1986. It was held on the USS Constitution and it probably made the evening news because she was such an anomaly—a female Rear Admiral who’d been working years beyond the Navy’s mandatory retirement by Congressional fiat and because the service bloody needed her expertise. She went on to become a consultant for DEC, and died in Arlington, Va., in 1992. (For a year, I lived near the apartment block that was her last residence. They’ve turned the grass in front of the building into Grace Hopper Park.

I’m grateful today for the example of Grace Hopper, for her unapologetic brilliance, her strength her biting wit, and her utterly no-bullshit attitude.

I sometimes wonder about Mary’s strength, as she journeyed to Bethlehem. I mean—it’s a lot to take in, a teenager (at least that’s the supposition) being visited by an archangel who announces she’s been chosen to bear the son of God. Then being pregnant—no one bothers to tell us what the pregnancy was like, but there’s no reason to imagine that carrying the Messiah is any different from carrying an ordinary baby. So, morning sickness, frequent peeing, fatigue, hormonal extremes.

Plus, now she’s on this freaking journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem—160km, on a donkey, in your ninth month, just so you and your husband can be counted in the census. (Thanks, Caesar!) First pregnancy—she had to be anxious; she’d have known of other women who had difficult births, maybe some who died. Gabriel, in the Annunciation, made no mention of an easy birth. And he’s representing the same God who told Abraham to kill his son Isaac and only pulled back at the last minute—“Ha, ha, just joking. You can keep the kid.”

So, what kind of strength did it take to be in the final trimester of her first pregnancy, traveling to a strange town, with a husband who presumably knows nothing about childbirth; to be so young and so out of her element in every respect? We do not know, because none of the New Testament writers could be arsed to tell us.

Okay. Today’s Advent music is a Nordic take on one I’ve given you beforeMaria Var Ei Møy Så Ren” describes a different trip, the one Mary took early in her pregnancy to visit her cousin Anne, who was also experiencing an unexpected pregnancy. (She was considered much to old to conceive; her son would be John the Baptist.) Evidently the road to Anne’s house took Mary through a thorny wood.

The artist is Marian Aas Hansen, a Norwegian singer. And I’m sorry (not sorry), but the picture on the cover of this album reminds me of the Leverage episode when the team was pulling off a job in Nashville and Parker was playing a Björk-like diva. This clip does not do the kookiness justice, but it’s apparently the only one on the web:

I think Grace Hopper would have found it amusing.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Prepare your heart

Today is the second Sunday in Advent. This is the one focused on preparation. 

Making yourself ready for the birth of the Saviour. Whatever it is that you need to do to make room for welcoming the baby, the spirit of God; that’s what this week is about.

So today’s music is “Praeparate corda vestra”, written in the 16th Century by one Jacobus Gallus Handl. The words tell us:

“Prepare your hearts for the Lord and serve Him only
And He will save you from the hands of your enemies.
Turn to Him with all your hearts
And banish strange gods from your midst.”

And it’s sung by the Benedictines of Mary, which seems appropriate.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Leave your lambs

Today’s Advent offering should probably come closer to Christmas, because it’s about the shepherds. But I feel shepherdy now, so… Also, there’s another one slotted for later.

“Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was sung by African-American slaves in the ante-bellum South. It was first published as “A Christmas Plantation Song” in Slave Songs of the United States, in 1867. The songs in this collection were gathered during the War Between the States, and the melody is probably from the coastal islands off South Carolina and Georgia. A lot of those songs would have been call and response, which is how “Rise Up, Shepherd” is framed.

Back in those days so glorified now by Republicans, slaves were property, to be used and disposed of at their master’s pleasure, like cattle and sheep. White owners, almost always professing Christians, were conflicted about converting their slaves. In one respect, it made no more sense than spreading the gospel to their cattle or sheep; property’s property, duh. But in another, preaching Christ’s teachings was downright radical—all that talk about all of us one under the Lord kinda runs contrary to the whole master-slave thing. What if—and bear with me on this for a minute—what if all those black people got the notion that spiritual liberation should be followed by, you know, actual physical liberation? Scary stuff, right?

So it was not at all uncommon for colonial legislatures to enact laws to ensure clarity on this issue: white guys = free; black guys = not free. Ordained by both God and man; end of. Maryland was the first colony, in 1664, to legislate that baptism had no effect on the social status of slaves. Southern theologians intoned that slaves had no soul; ergo treating them as property was copacetic, whether baptized or not.

Just like cattle and sheep.

(For the record, there are no reports to my knowledge of plantation owners baptizing their cattle or sheep. It could have happened, I suppose, but they didn’t document it in the parish ledger.)

Generally speaking, slaves were also kept illiterate; no need to read to pick cotton, tend babies or shoe horses. Also—man, that Gospel; you do not want anyone in captivity to have free access to that sucker, to parse and to ponder and to come up with weird-ass conclusions like Jesus preached to the poor and had no particular love for the rich, and what do we make of that? No, no—none of that Protestant notion of putting the Bible into everyone’s hands so s/he can build an individual relationship with God. You might as well give the field hands guns.

Also, slaves were forbidden to gather in large numbers, where they might talk with one another, share information about their conditions and maybe discuss things that property owners would prefer that their chattel goods didn’t discuss.

So being unable to write or congregate, generations of men, women and children developed a musical code for communication with one another, across geographical and chronological boundaries. This code would be spirituals and gospel music. When you dig into some of these songs, they’re about as incendiary as it gets; they’re just cloaked in metaphor. “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, “Jacob’s Ladder”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—they all sound kind of meek and pious, but they’re built on pain and anger and aspirations.

And so is “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”. I mean, how on earth did slaveholders even hear those first two words without the hair on the backs of their necks rising? The response to the call—twice in the verses and twice again in the chorus—is literally telling the listeners to rise up. And follow that star to freedom.

This is really clever—the star followers in the Nativity story were the wise men, the three kings, the guys who’d have been identified with the slave owning class; not shepherds, who clearly align more with the slaves. Also, the star in the song is in the East, and the one slaves followed was in the North, so a bit more subterfuge. No, no, massa—don’t worry your white head; this song isn’t about slaves escaping or rebelling or anything like that. It’s all about your blue-eyed Jesus.

The song urges the shepherds/slaves to ditch their responsibilities to follow that star. I have to admit that it seems irresponsible and unshepherdly to abandon their sheep; I feel bad for the animals. But if we’re talking tobacco and cotton fields, I can totally see slipping away and hoofing it north of the Mason-Dixon line. Massa can bloody well get up and milk the cows himself. Or pay someone to do it.

In addition to the call/response framework, I also notice that “Rise Up, Shepherd” has what I call a work rhythm to it. Like sea shanties—it’s steady with a strong beat, which you could use to coordinate repetitive labor, like swinging a scythe or pulling ropes.

I do not know why I can’t find a really good recording of this for you; all the versions out there are way too far removed from the slave quarters—all laundered and pressed, with no dirt or sweat in sight. Here’s the best I could manage, from a Belgian choir

Power to the shepherds!

Friday, December 6, 2019

Run, run, reindeer

Today is Saint Nicholas Day, the day when we commemorate the 4th-Century bishop of Myra, one of the participants of the Council of Nicaea. This is actually the day he died, which makes a bit of a change for celebrations.

(Although his death is kind of a thing; at least his corpse was. Because about 600 years after he died, Italian merchants robbed his grave in Myra and took his body to Bari. I’m not touching the issues around what possesses a group of people to do that kind of stuff and expect to remain in God’s favor.)

He’s the patron of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students. I’m trying to think of what commonalities connect those groups, but without luck.

We of course have conflated Saint Nicholas with major gift giving (which might explain the children, merchants and pawnbrokers; possibly the repentant thieves, too), via the Dutch version of his name, Sinterklaas. And today is the day (instead of the 25th) when children in a number of countries get their gifts (if they’ve been good; if they’ve been naughty, they get coal or switches, depending on the local custom; you might even be eaten by a giant cat).

To honor the good bishop, we’re having the “Little Saint Nick”. I must confess that I don’t find this the best example of the Beach Boys’ ouvre, but I just feel like changing it up this year.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

The shades of night are lifting

Today’s music isn’t Advent, or Christmas-related, but it is seasonal.

I probably first heard “Song for a Winter’s Night” soon after it came out on Gordon Lightfoot’s The Way I Feel album. He apparently wrote it while in Cleveland in the summer, so I suppose it was antidote to everything around him.

Lightfoot’s was the definitive recording for me for a long time, but I’ve recently taken a shine to Sarah MacLachlan’s cover. It somehow seems more hushed and filled with snow. They’re both Canadians, so they know their winter’s.

I’ll give you both and let you choose your preference.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Hair, hands and diapers

Let’s head over to the old world for today’s Advent music. Specifically, Spain, for “Los peces en el río.”

There’s not a whole lot of substance in this one—just the fairly banal activity of Mary washing and combing her hair,washing her hands and laundering diapers. And the fish. 

To tell you the truth, I’m a skosh vague about the connection between the Nativity and Mary washing her hair by the river; rivers don't appear to figure large in Nativity stories. But I’m willing to go with it. Woman's gotta do the needful, after all. And why shouldn’t fishes be excited about the birth of the Savior? The Good News isn't just for mammals, is it?

There’s no peg on when this was written or by whom, but it became popular in the second half of the 20th Century. Here we’ve got the Mexican trio Pandora singing it.