Monday, December 31, 2012

Music for New Year's Eve: The Year of Jubilo

Tomorrow is the sesquicentennial of the most revolutionary New Year's Day in American history, the day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.  The Proclamation is to this day not universally well understood; the always excellent James McPherson explains the impact it had in 1863 as well as anyone can in this recent piece; he calls it "a bombshell on the American public."

The song "The Year of Jubilo" (also known as "Kingdom Coming," "Ole Massa's Run Away," and "Lincoln's Gunboats") was written in the months leading up to the great day, and imagines what did in fact go on to happen:  as the Union Army advanced, slaveowners fled, leaving their now former slaves to claim their freedom.  

It was written by Henry Clay Work, a self-taught musician who had grown up in a household used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and who composed in his head without an instrument.  His biggest hit was another Civil War song, "Marching through Georgia," but he had post-war hits as well.  "My Grandfather's Clock," from 1876, was recorded several times throughout the 20th Century, and as recently as 2004 by BoyzIIMen.  The Oxford English Dictionary cites the song's 19th-Century popularity via sheet music as the origin of the term "grandfather clock" to refer to a weight-and-pendulum clock in a tall case.  His 1868 hit "The Ship that Never Returned" is not particularly remembered today, but its melody and basic theme were lifted in the early 20th Century for the greatest train song ever, "The Wreck of the Old 97."

The "Jubilo" recording I've posted above is by Chubby Parker, principally remembered today for having the version he recorded of "Froggie Went A-Courting" included on The Anthology of American Folk Music.  Parker was a regular on the WLS National Barn Dance in the mid-'20s, and his popularity there gave him a recording career.  He made about 50 records, mostly of songs from the previous century.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Music for Christmas

Longfellow's poem "Christmas Bells," written on Christmas Day 1863, has over the years been set to two different melodies as the Christmas carol known by its first line, "I heard the bells on Christmas Day."  In the 1870s, a London composer and church organist named John Baptiste Calkin set it to a melody he had composed thirty years earlier; in the 1950s, Johnny Marks--an American Jewish songwriter who cranked out the Christmas hits "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "A Holly Jolly Christmas," and "Rockin' around the Christmas Tree"--composed the setting more frequently heard today.

Still, there are a number of lovely recordings of the Calkin version out there, including this nice one by Elvis Presley and The Jordanaires.  What I've posted above, though, is the Marks version sung by the magnificent voice of Harry Belafonte.

All recorded versions I've heard omit the three verses of Longfellow's poem that tie it to the Civil War and thereby give it real depth.  Here's the whole poem; it's verses 3, 4, and 5 that get skipped:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.