Author: Daniel, Bert

Christmas Chestnuts

The Christmas season came early this year for our family. Thanksgiving arrived as early as it ever does and on the very next day, Black Friday, my daughter Juliet had a gig playing Christmas tunes at a shop downtown. The idea was to have live Christmas music to get shoppers into the holiday spirit.

Juliet asked me to come along and add a few mandolin fills and harmonizing for her guitar playing and singing. We worked up a set list of a dozen tunes or so and played them for almost four hours while the shoppers milled about. It was loads of fun for me but by the end, I was more than ready for some new material. How many times have you ever listened to or played Silent Night in one evening? Whatever the number, I think my daughter and I have beaten your record.

We had a great set list of a dozen or so tunes, including some of my very favorite holiday music. It's just that after a while, even the best of tunes get a little stale. If you had to perform a three hour set of familiar Christmas music, with no repeats, you'd have a tough time, wouldn't you? You could perform Handel's Messiah, but the only familiar part to your audience would be the Hallelujah Chorus.

There's a lot of other great music in Handel's Messiah, and there are a lot of great holiday tunes besides White Christmas, I'll Be Home For Christmas, Winter Wonderland, Away in a Manger, etc., etc. Why do we hear these same tunes every year when there are so many tunes out there? Perhaps it's time to revive some of the "old chestnuts".

One of my favorite music books is a book called A Fiddling Christmas, by Craig Duncan. Mel Bay probably still has it in print. What I like most about the book is that, among six dozen Christmas tunes in the book, I'll bet less than a third would be familiar to the average listener. Each tune has a melody and harmony score but unfortunately, lyrics to the songs are not given.

I've gone through this book over the years every holiday season. By now I have played just about every tune in the book, from Jingle Bells to the Boar's Head Carol. And I can tell you this. A lot of the old forgotten chestnuts are more fun to play and sing than the ones everybody is so accustomed to.

So here's my list of old chestnuts for you to check out. You can probably find a you tube version for every one of these otherwise obscure tunes. Have fun.

1) Ding! Dong! Merrily on High

Believe it or not, I first heard this tune in an old Monty Python skit. I loved the melody and forgot all about the tune until I rediscovered it in Craig Duncan's book.

2) The Cherry Tree Carol

I don't remember ever hearing this traditional song until I heard Joan Baez sing it (on You Tube). Last week I was channel surfing and I came across Sting singing the tune on PBS's Great Performances. The Cherry Tree Carol became popular despite its story being apocryphal and it is the only Christmas tune listed in the Child's list of 305 folk ballads.

3) Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella

Over 300 years old, this melody started out in France and is still popular in England.

4) The Devonshire Carol

This one dates back to 1871 and it is sung to a couple of different lyrics versions. One of them was featured in a Steven Spielberg movie but the version I like is the one that starts with "When righteous Joseph wedded was".

5) The Golden Carol of the Wisemen

I heard this off of a Life Magazine Christmas collection from 1963. One the same album is:

6) The Huron Indian Carol

Also called "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime", it is Canada's oldest Christmas song. It was written in 1643 by Jean de Brebeuf, who was a missionary to the Huron tribe. He wrote the original lyrics in the Huron language. The title Jesous Ahatonhia means "Jesus, he is born".

7) Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

Adapted from a Polish Carol.

8) Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine

This is a tune from the fifteenth century and still one of the most popular christmas tunes in Germany.

That will get you started at least. There are many old chestnuts waiting to be dusted off and I encourage you to give a few of these a listen. Maybe work up a fresh tune or two and add some spice to your holiday season this year.

Happy Holidays to all!

Posted:  12/17/2012

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