The Jackdaw Shivers: A Midwinter Playlist

We know by the moon that we are not too soon

And we know by the sky that we are not too high

We know by the stars that we are not too far

And we know by ground that we are within sound

– Phil Tanner singing “Gower Wassail”

For a week or two – and for another few to come – I’ve been listening off-and-on to the brilliant and gorgeous Midwinter box set as released a few years back by the Free Reed label. How’s this for the Xmas spirit of “too much ain’t enough”: Four CD’s, around 100 songs – ranging from the stark beauty of Phil Tanner’s unaccompanied “Gower Wassail” to Boris Karloff reading from “The Grinch,” to Doc Watson, Robert Frost, Bob and Ron Copper, and even Loudon Wainwritght – and a 136-page booklet explaining every damn moment on the thing. There are recordings both new and very old, but besides the occasional contemporary artist to keep things saleable, the songs tend to remain largely rooted in pre- or barely-Xtian folk concepts: Wassailing, the Wren, Mummer’s plays, etc. It’s a geek’s dream come true – as though designed to give someone like me something to buy in December.

There are, however, a few tracks that I’ve needed to add in for my personal Solstice-time playlist, and it seemed only fair to dig a few up online and share them for your Xmas eve Youtubing pleasure.

My personal favorite Xmastime thought is wrapped up, currently, in Waterson: Carthy’s rendition of what, according to Martin Carthy, is apparently not from the folk tradition but an ‘art-song’ – a Church-born tune largely lost to tradition, perhaps because of its somewhat revolutionary, if entirely Christian in theme, lyrics.

“Time to Remember the Poor” comes from Waterson: Carthy’s Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man album of midwinter songs. “When your minds are annoyed by the wide-spreading floods / and your bridges are useful no more … do you grumble to think of the poor?” A beautiful song, rendered powerfully by Waterson: Carthy with the addition of the Devil’s Interval a cappella singers, that reminds us that Christianity is based on a powerful upside-down world in which, in the early Christian models, the wealthy and powerful should live in respectful fear of the meek.

Holy Heathens… comes in a close second to the original Watersons’ season-cycle album, Frost & Fire, which spans the year from Xmas and New Year’s through Easter and Mayday and harvest songs and back again to the midwinter wassail tradition of “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” (Ignore the sillier pictures of this video, please…)

One of the highlights of Midwinter is its inclusion of readings by Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot; Nigel Schofield’s readings from the Bible and Mike Hockenhull’s “Night Before Christmas.” I’d like to add to that Laurie Lee’s gorgeous, if somewhat apocalyptic, “Christmas Landscape” – the landscape of Xmas as seen by a war-addled mind which ranged from the “end of 1,000 years” of a traditional lifestyle in the Cotswolds to the bloody fields of Spain; the landscape of Xmas as seen by a poet forced into modernism by circumstances rather, perhaps, than embrace.

You’ll have to ignore the strange animation of Lee reading, but listen to the scratchy record of his words, full of pops and crackles the way such a strange rendering should be.

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