Believe it or not, Christmas, for many people in America, stands as one of the most problematic seasons of the year. While for some, it ranks second only to Easter as one of the prime affirmations in their belief in salvation and the everlasting life, for others the holiday season is filled with contradiction, disappointment, loneliness, isolation, and confusion. It’s a stressful time that often reminds them of how their life is, in one way or another, off track. And it’s surrounded by music that spiritually and culturally points to a life they don’t quite participate in. All this takes place as Ruldolph plans to fly, angels are heard on high, and long dark nights create a seasonal depression that can loom over all.
Robert White & The Candy Mountain Boys
Bluegrass music has always had difficulty reconciling its serious musical innovation with its hillbilly roots. Since the beginning of recorded music, the development of genre classifications to sell more record players and then to produce content for those players has been pointed at niches. Two important niches, built by RCA under the brilliant recording and promoting hands of Ralph Peer, developed as race records and hillbilly records. Hillbilly developed into country music, with its cousin, bluegrass music, emerging as a subgenre. Christmas music became a perfect place for bluegrass to present its seriousness in interpreting a broader cultural phenomenon to a regional, rural audience, and holiday tunes were also a perfect vehicle for widening the bluegrass audience. Here’s late Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys singing “Christmas Time’s A’Comin." Notice host Ralph Emery’s thoughtful introduction and shout-out to Tex Logan, whose career and music characterize some of the contrasts in bluegrass.
Christmas Time’s A’Comin – Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys
Since its very beginning, bluegrass (as well as the nation in which it was born) has struggled with divides: rural vs. urban, faith-driven vs. agnostic or atheistic, farm and outdoors workers vs. educated and professional. Meanwhile, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas has become so besotted with holiday celebrations, sales, television shows, and movies that it’s nearly impossible to avoid the festivities, even for those who might not feel so festive. Some have found alternative ways to celebrate the seasonal changes, including Festivus, invented in an episode of Seinfeld.
The Festivus Song
Many of the rituals of Christmas, associated with the shortest, darkest times of the year in northern climes, developed before Christianity as part of pagan celebrations developed to make the darkness bearable. Those of us who live in places where dark evenings and late sunrises occur have both an emotional and physical need for a midwinter celebration. According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, an outgrowth of Hartford Theological Seminary, while 40 percent of Americans say they go to church regularly, approximately 80 percent are not in church on any given Sunday. Nevertheless, Christmas, in all its manifestations in contemporary America, has become a central metaphor for our winter solstice celebrations, dominating the media, decorating each street, and filling the air with song. Here’s a new song Eric Gibson wrote celebrating a Christmas ritual for many children, putting out cookies for Santa Claus to keep his energy up as he girdles the earth on Christmas Eve.
Santa’s Cookies by Eric Gibson
Christmas can be an excellent marketing opportunity for musicians and record companies, too. Emory Lester, a well-known mandolin player, has released an album this year with wonderful Christmas cuts on it. The recording is the latest in a series of Christmas CDs released by National Media Services for the past 11 years featuring a performer or band playing Christmas songs for promotion, entertainment, and celebration of the season. The three elements are inextricably woven together at this time of the year. Here’s the old (composed by Isaac Watts in 1719) Christmas carol "Joy to the World" from that album.
And here’s the U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band combining the bluegrass classic “Dueling Banjos” with “Jingle Bells” in one of their Christmas performances.
U.S. Navy Band – Dueling Jingle Bells
Each year, despite often threatening (or worse) weather, my wife, Irene, and I head to the northernmost reaches of New York State, just a couple of miles short of the Canadian border, to Ellenburg Depot, a small, rural village where small dairy farms once thrived. Now the area is dominated by huge wind farms harvesting the cold winds blowing from the North Pole. In Ellenburg Depot, at the Northern Adirondack Central School, we attend the always sold-out Gibson Brothers Family Christmas, a holiday celebration bringing a small town and its most illustrious hometown heroes together to create warmth, memories, and a celebration of the season that also benefits a local charity. In the first cut I’ve chosen from that show, watch as Eric and Leigh prank their sister, Erin Gibson LaClair, whose marvelous voice is heard too seldom, in the contemporary Christmas carol "Little Drummer Boy." Keep an eye on Erin as she realizes what’s happening and listen for the audience’s response.
The Gibson Brothers with Erin Gibson LaClair – Little Drummer Boy
Amid all the humor, ambivalence, tension, and anxiety of the Christmas season, something special happens as this community draws together to celebrate the season with its favorite sons, something magical. Outside, its almost always cold, really cold, as the wind blows across the parking lot and snow spits and drifts, but in that filled-to-overflowing 600-seat auditorium, something magic reigns. Here’s Leigh Gibson, toward the end of the evening, singing a song people who love Christmas venerate, as only he can deliver it.
Leigh Gibson – O Holy Night