What is it about Christmas music and the undeniable gravitational pull it exerts on some songwriters?
I for one have never been able to resist the urge to scribble a song that might outlive me with hopes of slipping it in among those overplayed and oh-so-tired holiday classics – syrupy and jingly as they may be, sleigh bells ringing into oblivion.
The music that surrounds the end of every year is deeply associated with my earliest, most primal musical memories. A time of year with its own music. And every songwriter must admit it: overplayed or not, some of those tunes are magnificent and timeless as falling midnight snow.
And how could I forget the little wooden church in the snow by the railroad tracks in the coalmining town of Fairpoint, Ohio, where we children walked to the front of a candlelit room, the stained glass all dark and sparkly? We sang an impossibly angular carol that stretched our child voices beyond their limits. “While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground, the angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around…”
Most every kid, rich or poor, in the 1970s, had a flannel bathrobe. To prove we were authentic Middle Eastern shepherds, we donned those robes and used the belts for headbands.
Costumes, stage fright, ancient Carols, candlelight: This was all some pretty deep voodoo for a 6-year old.
But in fact, at Christmastime, everyone in the small congregation was expected to walk to the front of the candlelit room and offer whatever they had to give: a short reading, the recitation of a poem from memory, a song. “Angels We Have Heard On High” played on the old upright piano by two blonde girls – what were their names?
At the end of the service, each of us children was rewarded like the pioneer children of days gone by with a huge orange and apple all our own. And the apple had been polished to such a gleam that it did feel like a gift.
My father had a knack for discovering and archiving odd Christmas tunes. He loved to make compilation tapes – 8-tracks and cassettes – full of the unusual finds he had unearthed: Mahalia Jackson crying, “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” Nat King Cole crooning, “O Tannenbaum,” Handel’s “For Unto Us A Child Is Born,” played by some foreign philharmonic, and don’t forget the Southern Gospel Quartets or the women’s trios – sisters singing blood harmonies that could make shivers on skin.
Blood Oranges In The Snow is the third Christmas record Karin and I have made, and I confess, I think I’m mostly just trying to get back to that early time in my life when the music was all brand new, something to be discovered.
But then again, so many Christmas songs have already been written: I think we are genuinely curious about the ones that haven’t.
Once upon a time we sent our first Christmas record to Byron House, an upright bass player who would join us for several of our December tours. Byron put it on the stereo during his family’s evening meal, and after several tracks his wife asked, “Do they like Christmas?”
Karin says we have stumbled upon a new genre of music called “Reality Christmas.”
When Karin and I make the annual holiday pilgrimage home to visit family, and pull into the drive, and turn off the car, one of us inevitably looks over at the other and says, “Tie a rope around my waist, I’m goin’ in.” We all have our foibles and somewhat compromised histories. And in spite of all the lights and festivities, our private struggles are often brought into more stark relief during the “holiday season.”
Maybe if we just tell the truth, it will give others freedom to do so.
So our new record Blood Oranges In The Snow opens with some reminiscing. It’s a long story, but my family spent an extended chapter of my childhood living in Montana. My parents, who weren’t wealthy, sent us kids to boarding school in Alberta, Canada, because they believed we could get a better education North of the border.
And maybe we did, but every December, getting home for Christmas was an adventure that would have made Laura Ingalls Wilder lose sleep at night. So many memories of snow in headlights, and mountain passes, and border crossings, and any number of delays, all the while knowing that there was the glow of home waiting for us, and however imperfect, it did tug at the deepest places of the heart. Isn’t that the most basic underpinning of all human longing – trying to arrive at a place called home?
The song “Another Christmas” involves a different kind of reminiscing in which the main character reflects on the vast disparity of the world we live in and the hope for the world described in the Christmas Carols of old. How peculiar that many of those who claim to believe the Christmas story of “peace on earth and mercy mild” insist on promoting concealed carry permits and so-called constitutional rights that are twisted to convince us that we should all arm ourselves to the teeth against the never-ending threat of our neighbors.
“My Father’s Body” acknowledges the empty seat at the table.
Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” reminds that the commercial and marketing pressures of the holidays sometimes arrive at the worst possible time.
“Let It Fall” was inspired by a few words that our friend Melanie Ciccone included in an email to us. She wrote something about rain and leaves and tears falling with “confidence and grace.” How could a songwriter ignore such a sentiment?
“Snowbirds” was written by a friend of ours. Kim Taylor said she wanted to hear Karin sing the word “Speedos.” Karin gladly obliged. We live in Ohio, and as much as we are deeply rooted in the Midwest and love the change of the seasons, we are not immune to pining for warmer shores in the bleak midwinter.
We put out the call to various songwriters who we consider great to help with the heavy lifting of the songwriting on Blood Oranges In The Snow.
When Jack Henderson from Scotland sent the song “Bethlehem” we immediately knew it was timeless, but we didn’t know it would prove to be so timely. Again, how ironic that the very birthplace of Jesus, should prove to be one of the most conflicted, un-peaceful regions of the world: Jesus, the child refugee who turned the world upside down with a message of love being the greatest human aspiration, even (and especially) when it involved forgiveness of enemies. (I stand convicted along with everyone else.)
When Karin heard Jack’s demo of the song, she insisted he take the lead vocal.
“First Snowfall” is a mash-up of memories from our days living in the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine (considered the bad part of town in Cincinnati), and driving through small towns in the Ohio valley where the Christmas decorations can get a little time worn, especially when left out all year round. But inevitably the snow would begin to fall after midnight downtown in our old neighborhood, each streetlight its own private snow globe, and I would look out my third-story bedroom window, a young songwriter far from home, and it always felt like something sacred was happening, a moment drenched in unnamed longing, the whole city eventually slowing and going still.
It always felt like a new start.
And “New Year’s Song:” Irving Berlin wasn’t shy about saying that if a songwriter wanted to make a living, he or she should write a song for every occasion. Sometimes it’s the job.
At first we were a little unsure about the songs that coalesced to become Blood Oranges In The Snow. We knew there were hope-infused moments on the record, but was it all a bit too dark?
And then we encountered (like a gift) some lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem, Journey Of The Magi.
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter…
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly…
All this was a long time ago I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This, set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?”
Yes, there comes a time in life when the two are so intertwined they become inseparable, companions on the same journey, lovers even. Our happiest tears now sparkle with a glimmer of sorrow, which feels like a song.
We’re still foolish enough to want to sing along.
Peace like a river, love like an ocean,
(with Karin nearby)
July 31, 2014