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What’s Up My Greensleeves…

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Like Dickens himself, young William Chatterton Dix coughed and stoked the coal-stove to drive out the damp chill of an English winter day.

He sat at the rugged wood table rubbing his hands together to create a bit more heat, then lifted his fountain pen to scribble another line… much as Mr. Dickens had done while writing A Christmas Carol only 22 years earlier…

…………………

With less than a month now until that famous Christian HOHOHOliday, I think I can squeak in an early post related to the holy and hallowed.

Even as an atheist, I’ve taken a Scrooge-like possession of sacred carols and music that festoons our halls and jingle our bells.

One of my favourites of the Christmas season is the carol we all know today as What Child Is This?, but I came to know first-off as Greensleeves (?a tribute to my many childhood runny noses?)

As a young piano prodigy *hah* (like driving a car as a youngster, I could barely reach the instrument’s pedals) one of the earliest pieces I learned from my austere music teacher was… you got it… Greensleeves.

But I’ve always pondered – yet never known or understood – why two names for the same carol? What’s the subterfuge that brought this about I wondered.

Let’s look a bit deeper:

Before What Child Is This? was born in Bristol, England in 1865, it took its first breaths as a celebrated English instrumental folk song, Greensleeves.

Some erroneously claim that Greensleeves, composed anonymously in 1580, was written by Henry VIII in order to woo Anne Boleyn; or, that Lady Greensleeves was a loose woman or a prostitute; or that the song has Irish origins. All good guesses, but… wrong, wrong, and wrong.

For all of these claims there is no actual evidence, yet still the stories circulate widely. Even the soap opera TV series The Tudors makes a show of Henry VIII composing Greensleeves.

In truth, the music to Greensleeves was first published and registered at the London Stationer’s Company in 1580.

On September 3, 1580, Richard Jones was licensed to print A New Northern Dittye of ye Lady Greene Sleeves. He then printed a book in 1584, A Handful of Pleasant Delights, in which the song was reprinted as A new Courtly Sonet of the Lady Green sleeues, to the new tune of Greensleeves.

The song was immediately immensely popular and off to a flying start. Even William Shakespeare cited it in his The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1602, 17 years after the song’s first publication and widespread success. His character Falstaff calls out: “Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!

Now let’s jump ahead a couple of hundred years and drop in on businessman William Chatterton Dix, the son of a surgeon from Bristol, England.

William actually spent most of his life in Glasgow, Scotland, working as a manager of the Maritime Insurance Company.

In 1865, 29 year-old William, a man extremely fond of traditional English folk songs, suffered a near-death bout of sickness. Afflicted also with severe depression, this traumatic experience changed him completely.

While recovering, he became an avid reader of the Bible and experienced a spiritual awakening that inspired him to take up crafting hymns in celebration.

While healing, he wrote the lyrics of The Manger Throne, which later came to be known as What Child Is This?, incorporating the tune of the celebrated English folk song, Greensleeves.

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.

Today, it’s been sung and recorded by countless artists of all genres. Andrea Bocelli, Johnny Mathis, Carrie Underwood, Josh Groban, Bing Crosby, the list goes on and on…

And, as the late radio host Paul Harvey used to say… “now you know… the rest of the story…

And maybe to entice you into the glow and spirit of the festive season to come, here is my recent recording of the tune on my faithful guitar:

It’s A Wonderful… River…

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Joy and Peace…

Sure, Joy and Peace, but you’d expect in this COVID year that isolation and loneliness might be prime themes too because we know that really, despite all the uplifting messages flooding radio and TV, that…

… Christmas has shadows of schizophrenic experience for many; the river of happiness melts into another counterpoint tributary of sadness, each river and tributary a personal journey of a life lived.

I love the bittersweet… the blend of jubilation and melancholy… the summary of life and living.

This week, while listening to beautiful seasonal music on the radio, one song sunk its teeth into me… Joni Mitchell’s bittersweet RIVER… a song I don’t even remember hearing until maybe 15 years ago, despite its release 49 years ago in 1971.

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

River, from Mitchell’s 1971 BLUE album, was never released as a single.

Derivative of Jingle Bells and set at Christmas time, its opening and closing melody is “Jingle Bells” in a minor key. Yes, those minor keys that pour a mist of sadness over us.

River is thought to be Mitchell’s lament over the loss of a relationship with her “best baby that I ever had”, the one who “made me weak in the knees”, singer Graham Nash… although Mitchell is a bit coy in letting that out.

And now, in the last 20 years, River has ascended to holiday-hit status as an antidote to all those “songs of joy and peace.” “We needed a sad Christmas song, didn’t we?” Mitchell said with a chuckle on National Public Radio in 2014. “In the ‘bah humbug’ of it all.”

Aside from the sumptuous richness of the production of the song (so lush you can feel the rubbing of your shoulders with Joni on the piano bench)… taking her message of loss and sorrow and turning that blueness into something of beauty is clearly one that rings true for many.

Just drown in the chilly airiness of her singing “fly” near the end of verses 2 and 3.

And River was never truly written as a Christmas song.

Listening to the song, this week before Christmas, I’m struck by thoughts of other creations from times-past that have unexpectedly ridden a tsunami wave of popularity…

Another example… this time a cinema case-in-point:

It’s A Wonderful Life… the Frank Capra produced, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed-acted Christmas masterpiece.

Released 74 (!) years ago in 1946, it barely caused a blip on the popular radar. The film had disappointing attendance and sales, and didn’t even return its cost of production ($6.3 million).

Nominated for Best Picture in 1947, it lost out to The Best Years Of Our Lives. Jimmy Stewart lost in the Best Actor category to Frederic March, also from The Best Years Of Our Lives.

Stewart had barely returned from a 4 year-long stint as an Army Air pilot who flew 20 combat missions over Germany when he took on the role of distraught son, brother, father George Bailey and turned the suicidal character into an emotional icon of film. Critics derided it as overly sentimental…

… it languished in the movie backwaters until the 1980’s when it was released royalty-free into the public domain. It’s A Wonderful Life is now ranked #20 on the top list of movies by the American Film Institute.

The rest is history, the film is a fixture of holiday watching. And today… we all know how an angel gets his wings, right?

My Christmas is best savoured with the bittersweet…

… the unloved Charlie Brown tree, sailing away on Joni’s long river, the recovered desperation of George Bailey…

In whatever way you find your journey through this COVID holiday season – whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or Kwanzaa (Habari Gani)…

… may you discover some Joy and Peace in your little corner of the world.

My Life As A Christian Fraudster

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closet atheist.jpg

Square peg in a round hole.

Am I a fraud? Am I usurping a zone where I don’t belong?

Or … am I merely a sign of the times… a modern zeitgeist where anyone is welcome anywhere so long as they don’t try to upend and smash the belief cart?

Like a reticent homosexual, I’ve climbed out of the closet in recent years, only my “reveal” is that I’m an atheist.

To be fair, I won’t pretend that the fears I felt in the past when people become aware of my non-belief, in any way compares to the traumas of others who’ve encountered much greater rejection related to their sexuality.

But fears and unease they were still.

For the past couple of centuries, Canada has been a “Christian” country. When I was born in 1957, more than 90% of the Canadian populace was Christian.

Of course today it’s a pastiche of religions, pseudo-religions, and non-religion. Barely 60% identify as Christian today.

I grew up in the United Church of Canada.

I hated the unending “preachy” sermons, but I really loved the hymns, the grape juice that I pretended was real wine (even while knowing that St. Eugene’s Catholic Church a few blocks away had the real stuff), the stained-glass windows.

I loved the warmth of the people always shaking hands and smiling. The warmth may have been put on temporarily like wearing your best Sunday suit, but it felt good nonetheless.

I’m comfortable now in my non-believing skin, but I can’t seem to shake a churchly connection to my past. Even though I proclaim myself an atheist, I’m in no hurry to cut the ties of my heritage.

We’re at the end of the first week of December in the Okanagan Valley, and I’m awaiting that true harbinger of Christmas, the first beautiful snowfall of the season. Nonetheless, the Christmas celebration is rushing headlong at us and Christmas says Christian, right?

Yet here I am, many years removed from my days of religious faith, and many thousands of kilometres away from my family’s church.

It’s music’s fault and I’m unapologetic. In fact, I’m thankful.

And on 4 occasions now, I’ve been asked to play my guitar and sing at the local United Church at their Monday night Community Dinners. When I told the vivacious woman in charge of these functions about my own belief system, she happily laughed it off and said, “so what?“…. WTH? … were they welcoming the Grinch into their little village?

 

Also, this year I’ve been asked to stand by the Salvation Army “kettles” to croon my John Denver version of Christmas for Cowboys and collect alms for the Christmas cheer of the less-favoured in the local area. I reflect back to the time when the folks standing by the kettles ringing the bells were outfitted in their authoritative “Army” uniforms, looking the well-starched Christian soldier part. Even their clunky black shoes looked God-fearing to me.

That was then. The volunteers I encounter standing by the Sally Ann kettles now come in jeans and wear Santa hats. That’s pretty inclusive.

In tutoring my Syrian Muslim friend, I’m acting as his interpreter of the Christmas season, just as he does the same for me during Ramadan. We enjoy learning about each other’s worlds. I’m just a non-Christian playing a small part in a world of Christians and Jews and Muslims and Atheists and on and on.

But I hope the feeling that I get by being around and enjoying others with different belief systems is a trend that continues to spread as our uneasy, uncomfortable world slowly… inexorably melds itself into a sphere of tolerance and acceptance.

If only I were a Christian… then I might suggest that “tolerance and acceptance” would be an excellent 11th Commandment… nobody needs religion to buy into that, right? Thank you… Thank you very much …

Sally Ann Elvis

 

 

Boney M Must Die …

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Boney M

I’m such a fascist.

I know it’s the season of goodwill and peace but all I want to do is smash and burn Boney M Christmas music CD’s.

Christmas. The splendour and fears, the joys and heartbreak mix together like a multi-hued fruit cake … loved to the heavens by some, loathed to the devil’s armchair by others. Strong, strong gut-felt sensations from heart to head to toe.

Smells of pine or fir needles waft softly through the warm rooms of our hearts and homes, scents of gingerbread and vanilla and shortbread, voices of grandparents, Mommies and Daddies, the thp thp thp of excited pyjama-clad feet over wooden floors.

Laughter at turkey-festooned tables, where long simmering bitternesses are subsumed by best behaviours… the notion that no ill words will be laid on the Christmas table; not this hour, not this day, at least.

Modern Family Christmas

And in the background of all this joy and tension lies music. Seasonal tunes emanating from vinyl record and CD players, cellphones, MP3 players, songs springing from the living room’s polished piano keys or the silken strings of Aunt June’s guitar.

I love so many carols and hymns played over the Christmas season, don’t you? And if a chanteuse sings one song I don’t enjoy so much, there’s usually another they perform that lifts me skywards to nirvana.

Holly_Wreath

Years ago I lived for a time in Canada’s arctic town of Yellowknife.

As Christmas approached, I’d sit crammed with a bunch of other revellers in the cheek-numbing open-air box of a friend’s pickup truck and drive through the dark at -40C under the warm, green-tinged swirl of northern lights to co-workers’ homes for carol singing and rum drinking. Staid old Dr. Igoe was always the most generous with the spirit bottle, so we unfailingly sang our best festive tunes in the warmth of his living room.

Our Arctic choir didn’t have one, but just about every artist in the recording universe has a Christmas album or two. I can enjoy a carol, a hymn from just about anyone … exceptBONEY M.

The gritty, irritating sand of the synthetic Boney M Jamaican/Disco sounds wear at me like fingernails screeching down the blackboard.  Every verse, every chorus, every song.

I want to scream and run over sole-searing hot coals until there’s more pain in my feet than in my ears.

When I tell my family and friends of my Anti-Boney slant, they look at me like I have two heads, as if there’s something terribly wrong with me, a sickness that needs a cure.

Maybe I have an aural allergy, is this possible?

But enough. I won’t spend my Christmas season in a funk because of one musical group who, for me, massacres the sounds I love so dear.

Each of us has a selection of festive melodies that find a way into our hearts, giving rise to joy, melancholy, desire, cheer, sorrow. Our range of human emotions is brought rolling to the surface in a huge wave when the annual litany of music hits the tidal sands of Christmas.

Christmas FaMILY AT PIANO

Today, I have a question or challenge to make you exercise your mind and hold the Alzheimer demons at bay. Are you ready?

If I were to send you away Tom-Hanks-Castaway-style for the next month and your iPod or iPhone or Galaxy S would hold ONLY 3 Christmas (substitute SEASONAL if you prefer) songs/ carols/hymns … what would your choices be?

To jog your thinking, I’ve gone to the wintry streets and canvassed a few folks nearby and received a few suggestions like:

Also, just as an FYI, a recent Nielsen Company survey of most popular Christmas song downloads are as follows:

All I Want For Christmas Is You (Mariah Carey)

The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) (Alvin and the Chipmunks)

Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)

Christmas Canon  (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)

Rockin Around the Christmas tree (Brenda Lee)

The Chanukah Song (Adam Sandler)

Where Are You Christmas (Faith Hill)

Feliz Navidad (Jose Feliciano)

Jingle Bell Rock (Bobby Helms)

White Christmas (Bing Crosby)

My own musical tastes at this time of year gravitate towards the melancholy end of the spectrum, maybe because I like to plumb the depths of my emotional heart. So, restricted to just 3 pieces, I would go with:

  • Holly_WreathTom Jackson (Huron Carol) … the wonderful Canadian Christmas carol (likely written in 1642 by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons) by deep-voiced Tom Jackson. The tremelo of his “In excelsis gloria” sends shivers down my spine.
  • Holly_WreathJohnny Mathis (The Christmas Song) … a favourite from my childhood that was always heard on the record player while we decorated the tree.

Released in 1958 by Columbia Records, Percy Faith provided the album’s musical direction. The Christmas album containing this song by Mathis peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart in 1959.

  • Holly_WreathVince Guaraldi (Christmas Time Is Here)… another childhood favourite… the swish swish swish of the brushes on the snare drum just makes me feel the snowflakes falling.

This song was written for the 1965 Christmas cartoon Merry Christmas Charlie Brown. In the weeks preceding the premiere, TV producer Lee Mendelson encountered trouble finding a lyricist for Guaraldi’s instrumental intro, and penned Christmas Time is Here in “about 15 minutes” on the backside of an envelope.

The recording sessions of the childrens’ choir were conducted in late autumn 1965, and were cut in three separate sessions over two weeks. They often ran late into the night, resulting in angry parents, some who forbid their children from returning – therefore, numerous new children were present at each session.

The children were directed by Barry Mineah, who demanded perfection from the choir. Mendelson and Guaraldi disagreed, desiring the “kids to sound like kids”. Each child was paid five dollars for their participation. In addition, the children recorded dialogue for the special’s final scene, in which the crowd of kids shout “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”.

                    charlie-brown

So, as you sit sipping an egg nog latte snuggled under a warm blanket, sugar plum fairies dancing in your head, snowflakes sowing themselves gently on your window frames, take a moment to ponder over your three finalists.

If you’re brave you can share them with me and I won’t laugh … or decry you … even if … a Boney M tune is among your selections. How’s that for Christmas Spirit? HOHOHO…