My son, Declan, used to have a wide-ranging and eclectic weekly music show, Against the Arctic, on Melbourne community radio station RRR for many years. In 2007, he asked me to co-host a Christmas special with him and we had so much fun with it we decided to make it an annual event. It was a two-hour show that ran for five years, and, not wanting to repeat ourselves from year to year, we were always on the lookout for things we hadn’t played before.
Until I started actively searching, I hadn’t realised just how much Christmas music was out there. It seems that every artist who’s performed for any length of time has done a Christmas album, or at least a song, at some stage. And every year new pieces are written and new recordings of old standards are released, add- ing to the gigantic, centuries-old pile of songs, carols, hymns and poems.
It’s the sheer volume of Christmas material, much of it schmaltzy or schlocky, or both, that can sometimes blind us to the incredible variety of riches hidden within that pile, just as the genuine treasure of a beloved present
may get lost among the trash and chaos of Christmas Day. Christmas down the ages has thrown up wonderful music and songs of all kinds – sacred and secular, ancient and modern, political and soulful, serious and fun. And in all kinds of styles – pop, classical, folk, gospel, soul, blues, rock ’n’ roll, punk, garage, grunge, dance, hip-hop, reggae, calypso and more.
A reason for this astonishing variety, I suspect, apart from Christianity’s global spread, is that the Christmas we celebrate today is a blend of many traditions, some relatively recent and some going back thousands of years, and all of them giving rise to story and song. Exploring these traditions is like going on an archaeological dig.
Its central story, often buried under tinsel, is the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary in a stable in Bethlehem around 2000 years ago. This event was the first Christmas family gathering – Mary and Joseph with Jesus in the manger, a feeding trough for animals. Like many families today, they had to travel and didn’t have an easy time getting there. Night falling and no room at the inn! Stress leading up to Christmas? It was there from day one.
Historians say that the early Christian authorities sought to make a new religion more palatable to non- believers by aligning Jesus’s birthday with pagan winter solstice festivals such as the Germanic Yuletide and the Roman Saturnalia. The Saturnalia ran for a week each year, culminating on December 25. Our traditions of gift giving, feasting, singing, the lighting of candles, the decorating of trees, generosity to the poor, goodwill to all, general indulgence and the loosening of everyday constraints all hark back to these pre-Christian rituals. Conversion by stealth, you might say.
“White Christmas”, the most popular Christmas song ever, doesn’t mention Jesus at all. Irving Berlin, the grand old man of American pop music, frames the song as a longing for home and hearth and idyllic childhood days. Bing Crosby’s version is the most well known, and supposedly the biggest selling song of all time, helped by a big dose of schmaltz, but Darlene Love’s 1963 record- ing on Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You is the one I play loud every Christmas morning.
Irving wrote a spoken introduction for the song, which Bing didn’t use:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day in old L.A. But it’s December the 24th
and I’m longing to be up north
So I can have my very own white Christmas
Darlene takes these lines and puts them in the middle of her version, further emphasising the fact that the narrator can’t be home for Christmas: they’re longing to be there but they’re too far away. This “missing out” is the key to the song’s emotional power, a key that helped me unlock my own Christmas song, “How To Make Gravy”, 25 years ago. Many other songwriters have done the same. Not being there has become a staple holiday theme. As The O’Jays say, “Christmas just ain’t Christmas without the one you love!”
“White Christmas” mentions sleigh bells and snow, invariably bringing to mind Santa Claus, who, to many, is the defining image of Christmas. But that story, too, has layers upon layers, going all the way back to St Nicholas, a bishop from Asia Minor, now Turkey, in the 4th century CE, who was famous for his gift-giving and good deeds. Legends surrounding St Nicholas became popular in Europe during the mediaeval period and hymns were written about him. He supposedly saved a poor man’s three daughters from servitude by secretly depositing bags of money in their house before the father eventually discovered him in the act. He calmed a storm on the sea through his prayers and so became the patron saint of sailors as well as of children.
The Dutch called him Sinterklaas, an abbreviation of Saint Nicholas, and centuries later carried him to America. With more than a little help from an 1823 poem, “A Visit from St Nicholas” (later known as “’Twas the
Night Before Christmas”), published anonymously in a New York newspaper, and now generally attributed to writer and classical professor Clement Clarke Moore, he eventually morphed into the jolly, red-cloaked, flying-with-reindeers figure we know today. St Nicholas got the hymns, Santa got the songs.
Celebrating Christmas in the southern hemisphere adds yet another layer to the festivities, as our summer sits weirdly on top of a holiday derived from winter solstice rituals. Shopping malls and supermarkets pipe carols singing of sleds and snow, warm chestnuts, mistletoe and holly as we shop for the makings of a roast and trinkets for small fir trees. On the day itself many people now forgo the once-traditional roast to eat seafood and sal- ads and drink white wine in the sun. As families feast and fight and love and laugh and tease and sulk and bicker, the talk in some households invariably turns to summer sports and the merits of the Australian side selected for the imminent Boxing Day test.
In 1948, lyricist James Wheeler and composer William James, both of whom worked at the ABC, published Five Australian Christmas Carols, a conscious collaboration intended to remedy the dearth of carols set in Australia. It was a big success. They followed up in 1954 and 1961 with two more sets, bringing the total songlist to 15, some of which have become canonical. “Carol of the Birds”, “The Three Drovers”, “The Silver Stars Are in the Sky” and “Christmas Bush for His Adorning”, among others, which celebrate the Australian summer, landscape and unique wildlife, with lyrics referencing golden weather, black swans, wild dogs, dancing brolgas and chanting currawongs, are now widely popular and enjoyed at such events as Carols by Candlelight.
Animals and birds have long been part of Christmas lore. Most of us are familiar with the partridges, turtledoves, geese and French hens that appear (repetitively!) in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. There’s an Australian version too, with kookaburras, emus, snakes and cockatoos. Ancient folk legends from many countries tell of animals talking at the birth of Jesus, based on the belief that the innocent creatures, as the first to wit- ness the miracle of the nativity, themselves miraculously began to speak on the stroke of midnight, Christmas Eve.
“The Friendly Beasts”, a song that has its origins in the Middle Ages, and possibly even further back, has a series of verses where the animals – the donkey, the cow, the sheep and the dove – take turns talking about their role in the birth of Jesus.
Said the cow, all white and red
“I gave Him my manger for a bed
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head” Thus said the cow, all white and red
Said the sheep with the curly horn
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm He wore my coat on Christmas morn” Thus said the sheep with curly horn
Deep inside the Church of the Nativity, where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was born, a stone, it is said, marks the place where the date palm tree of Islamic tradition supposedly once stood.
“Come; see the oxen kneel,” writes Thomas Hardy in “The Oxen”, a poem steeped in this tradition. And once again we’re back in the weird, old world of the Satur- nalia and similar festivals worldwide, where the estab- lished order of things turns topsy-turvy, where creatures assume new shapes and qualities (where reindeers fly!), where misrule reigns and masters serve their slaves.
In stark contrast to the whimsy and innocence of “The Friendly Beasts”, and to the joy and exaltation of most Christmas carols, is the 16th-century hymn “Coventry Carol”, which refers to The Massacre of The Innocents, a story from the Gospel of St Matthew. This is the dark underbelly of the Christmas legend. King Herod, after meeting with the three wise men (the Magi) on their star-guided way to worship the newborn King of the Jews, asks them to report back to him when they have found the child. The wise men visit the holy family in the stable and lay down their gifts of gold, frank- incense and myrrh, but, warned in a dream to avoid Herod, go home another way.
Herod, furious that he has been outwitted by the Magi and threatened by the possibility of the rise of another king greater than himself, gives orders to his sol- diers to kill all male children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem. Meanwhile, Joseph and Mary, also warned in a dream, secretly escape with Jesus to Egypt. The massacre goes ahead amid great mourning and weeping. “Coventry Carol” tells this story to chilling effect as a lullaby with a gorgeous melody.
All this took place a long time ago in a land where the three great monotheistic religions coexist and contend. Bethlehem is now a city under Palestinian authority in the West Bank. Its current inhabitants need permits to cross the Israeli checkpoint into Jerusalem, 10 kilometres to the north. (That’s less than from St Kilda to Northcote, a distance I know well, having lived in Melbourne under lockdown limits, unable to visit my children and grand- children.) Yet Christianity, Judaism and Islam all share the same father – Abraham – and as such are known as the Abrahamic religions. They are family.
Jesus was Jewish. (So, for that matter, was Irving Berlin. Many of the most well-known Christmas songs were written or co-written, albeit with secular themes, by Jewish composers and lyricists. To “White Christmas” add “Winter Wonderland”, “Santa Baby”, “The Christmas Song”, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, “Silver Bells” and many more.) Jesus (from the Hebrew Jeshua) was steeped in Jewish doctrine and law and, in his preaching, referred to the Torah, directly quoting from it at times. Other passages in the Hebrew bible prophesise his coming. The inscription on his cross, INRI, is
an acronym for the Latin words “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. As in birth, so in death.
The Qur’an, Islam’s founding document, believed to be Allah’s words unsullied by scribe or scholar, spoken directly to the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century CE, honours Jesus as a prophet too, and has a whole chapter, Surah Maryam, devoted to Mary, with many striking similarities to the Christian story. Echoing the Gospel of Luke, an angel appears before Mary and announces to her astonishment that she is going to give birth to a divine son even though she has been “touched by no man”. Following on from that come these beautiful lines:
And so she conceived him and withdrew with him to a far-off place. And the throes of childbirth came upon her by the trunk of a date-palm. She cried out, “Would that I had died before this, and been forgotten and out of sight!” But a voice called to her from below, “Grieve not! Your Lord has provided a stream at your feet and, if you shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, it will let fall fresh ripe-dates upon you. So eat, drink, and calm your mind.”
Deep inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was born, a stone, it is said, marks the place where the date palm tree of Islamic tradition – Mary’s succour and comfort throughout her tribulation – supposedly once stood.
Common ground. More than ever now we need it.
A CHRISTMAS SONG STOCKING
“White Christmas” – Darlene love
Darlene and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound take this song from Bing’s cosy fireside and burn it to the ground.
“What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’)?” – Louis Prima And his New Orleans Gang
Jumping out of 1936, fresh as tomorrow, Louis and the gang, as always, bring the party!
“The Friendly Beasts” – The Louvin Brothers
Johnny Cash has done this song. Burl Ives, too. Charles and Ira Louvin, one of the great American brother duos from the ’50s, reach into the distant past with that high and lonesome sound.
“River” – Joni Mitchell
From her great album, Blue. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Enough said.
“Coventry Carol” – Madison Nonoa with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and choir
Beautiful arrangement by Alex Palmer, featuring sack- buts, the precursor of the trombone. New Zealand soprano Madison soars above the horror.
“Silent Night” – The Soul Stirrers
In 1818 in Oberndorf, a small town in present-day Austria, the church organ was damaged by flood leading up to Christmas. Necessity being the mother of invention, “Stille Nacht” was written on guitar at short notice to accompany the choir on Christmas Eve. The parishioners were mostly people who worked on boats on the Salzach River, the source of the flooding. The melody has the sway of a gentle wave. A swayer and a stayer! Gospel singer Robert H. Harris, hugely influential, in particular on Sam Cooke, takes the lead here with the quartet, not long before handing on the baton to Sam.
“Joy To The World” – Aaron Neville and the blind boys of Alabama
This may be the sound of heaven.
“In The Hot Sun Of A Christmas Day” – Caetano Veloso
The heat is on for Caetano’s narrator, on the run from machine guns and separated from the one he loves. Caetano himself, along with his friend Gilberto Gil, was arrested without trial in 1968 under Brazil’s military dictatorship, detained for 57 days, then “invited” to leave the country shortly thereafter. They lived in exile in London for two years before returning home.
“Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth” – David Bowie And Bing Crosby
The gentle self-mocking banter between David and Bing at the start is pitch perfect. The singing isn’t bad either.
“O Holy Night” – Willie Kalikimaka
Willie keeps climbing through this 19th-century hymn, all the way to the stars.
“Christmas Morning The Rum Had Me Yawning” – Lord Beginner
Recorded in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1939. I wonder if Louis Prima was at that party, too. Lord Beginner, born Egbert Moore, moved to England in the late ’40s along with other well-known Calypsonians and became part of the thriving London calypso scene.
“White Wine in the Sun” – Tim Minchin
A big-hearted song, big enough to hold the contradictions of Christmas, and big enough to criticise and love. Sentimental and razor-sharp at the same time – not easy to do. Nice one, Tim.
“Arthur McBride” – Paul Brady
A virtuosic rendition of this 19th-century folk song by one of the leading figures of the Irish folk renaissance. Two Irish lads out for a walk on Christmas morning fight off an English press gang. They do more than fight them off – they beat them to a pulp!
“Shalom Aleichem” – Acapella
A traditional Hebrew prayer that has been set to many different melodies. It’s recited or sung all year round on Friday nights for Shabbat. This well-known melody was composed by Rabbi Israel Goldfarb just over a hundred years ago. The prayer speaks of peace, kings and angels. A perfect fit with Christmas.
“Esta Navidad” – Willie Colón And Héctor Lavoe
Trombonist Willie Colón and singer Héctor Lavoe, New York–based Puerto Ricans, made two hugely popular Christmas albums in 1970 and 1973, Asalto Navideño Vol 1 and Vol 2. The title translates to “Christmas Assault”. Not wrong! It’s impossible to stay still while listening to this record. I’m not much of a dancer, but I like to play it loud while prepping and cooking on Christmas morning.
“Surah Maryam” – Omar Hisham Al Arabi
Although there are strict protocols for reciting or singing the Qur’an, there are many variations in performance according to culture, geography and the individual. In the original Arabic it is never performed with any instrument other than the human voice. Many reciters have huge global followings.
“Christmas In Prison” – John Prine
Christmas jail songs could almost be a genre in itself. You could try “Christmas in Jail” by The Youngsters for something less melancholy.
“Christmas Ain’t Christmas” – The O’Jays
The great songwriting team of Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff, pioneers of the Philly Soul sound, produced and wrote this for the O’Jays in 1970. This team could always make sad songs sound joyous and uplifting.
“Maybe This Christmas” – Ron Sexsmith
“Maybe this year love will appear / Deeper than ever before.” Melancholy, hope, longing and beauty from Canada.
“Must Be Santa” – Bob Dylan
Accordion-driven romp. Worth it for the clip alone. They were probably playing Louis Prima before Bob arrived.
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” – Nancy Wilson
No Christmas song list is complete without acknowl- edging the new year and new beginnings. Written by Frank Loesser, who also wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” (during World War Two), it’s become a standard, recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and many others. But Nancy’s version takes the cake.
Written by Paul Kelly. First published in The Monthly.
Track x Track
I have loved this John Donne poem for a long time, with that beautiful opening line “Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.” This is a continuation of what I have been doing over the past 10 years, finding a poem and putting music to it. It took a while to get the timing of the words with the music but it came together when I took it to the band. My daughters Maddy and Memphis sing the harmonies. That works out nicely, establishing the family theme that runs through the album.
2 Silent Night
Silent Night is one of my favourite songs so it had to be there. It’s always our last song at the family carols so I was planning for it to be the last song on the record but, after battling with the final order, it went up front in a late move. I knew that the main body of the record would be performed my band, with different guest singers. But I’d recorded a song that came out last year, Sleep Australia Sleep, with Alice Keath and Sime Nugent and thought it would be great if we had that line up with three voices singing harmony all the way through on some songs. It was Sime’s idea to add Shane Riley who plays all the instruments on the track. He is such a beautiful player and we wanted to get that Hawaiian kind of feeling he brings with the ukulele and steel guitar. Alice speaks German and the song was originally written in that language so we thought we would honour that with Alice singing one of the verses in German. We had a lot of fun with this one, swapping around the vocal parts.
3 Swing Around the Sun
I wanted songs that show the Australian experience of Christmas. This one is written by Casey Bennetto, a really talented and versatile songwriter who people would know from Keating! The Musical. Casey runs Christmas shows at the Bella Union in Melbourne and that’s where I heard him sing it. I told him I would like to have a go at it and he sent over the words and a chart. There are about 19 chords in the song! We had to wrestle with this one a while to get all the gear changes working in it. There’s a touch of Louis Prima by the end. The song hasn’t been officially released before so it’s nice to premiere it on this record.
Chris and Wes Harrington are brothers who are part of the Melbourne band scene. They have a band, Large Number 12s. Charlie Owen and Spencer Jones have played with them and we did a song together for an album of songs by the late Maurice Frawley, Long Gone Whistle. I heard this song years ago and stored it away. It’s great fun for the band to play and it happened pretty quickly in the studio. Billy Miller from The Ferrets is good mates with those guys and he does the high harmony part. Again it’s a new Australian song that a lot of people have not heard.
5 Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)
This was sung by Darlene Love on the Phil Spector-produced album A Christmas Gift For You that came out in 1963. We started doing it in our end-of-year Gravy shows with Linda Bull singing. Both Linda and Vika did their vocals on the one day and pretty much did them in one take. Amazing. We added the backing vocals later with Maddie and Memphis and Linda’s daughter Kiki sang with Vika. We kept the family theme going when my son Declan dropped in to the studio with my grandson Juniper. He has had some piano lessons so our keyboard player Cameron Bruce asked him to play the bell parts on a small keyboard.
6 Little Drummer Boy
A bit of a rivalry has built up over the years between the Melbourne Kellys and the Queensland Kellys with Little Drummer Boy. There were a couple of years where we would send a recording up to them and they would do the same for us and we would argue about which version of this was best. Unfortunately we couldn’t get the Queensland Kellys down for this recording but there are a fair few Melbourne Kellys. My sister Mary-Jo arranged the vocals. When we are doing Christmas carols she is the leader.
7 Arthur McBride
This is a traditional Irish ballad I know from the version by Paul Brady on an album he made with Andy Irvine in 1976. That version is incredible, virtuosic but also really soulful too. Arthur and his cousin run into some English soldiers on Christmas morning who try to get them to enlist. Arthur’s cousin tells the story: “We lathered them there like a pair of wet sacks/And left them for dead in the morning.” Years later I asked Paul to tour with me in Australia. He didn’t want to play Arthur McBride at first. As the tour went on I managed to persuade him and it was a big thrill for me to sing it with him because his version is like a mountain. For this record we circled the song for a long time trying to find our own way to play it until the band worked out how to build it and when to bring it down.
8 The Virgin Mary Had One Son
My interest in Christmas songs intensified when my son Declan was a radio presenter at Triple R in Melbourne and he suggested we do a Christmas show on air. We did five two-hour specials between 2007 and 2011 and, as we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, we built up quite a playlist. We played the version by The Staple Singers on that show. Emma Donovan was the obvious first choice to sing it on this record. She didn’t know the song but loved it and was right on the money. We had Vika and Linda there too so we stuck close to the Staple Singers harmony arrangement.
9 Tapu Te Pō (O Holy Night)
I thought of Marlon Williams straight away for this. He came back and said: “That’s my favourite Christmas song, I’ve sung it since I was a kid, I grew up singing it in choirs.” He had sung it in te reo Māori too. When you are curating something like this and a singer comes back with that response you think, “I’ve done well here.” It was tricky logistically because he couldn’t be together with us in the studio. He sent a phone demo and we tried to play to that as faithfully as we could. That demo is a cherished recording of mine. It has crackles and knocks and him singing an odd falsetto suggesting the choir parts . That was the blueprint. He recorded his vocal in Auckland and we had it set up so I could watch and hear the audio. It was Marlon’s idea to have the children’s choir. Jess Hitchcock works with the national indigenous youth choir Short Black Opera and the Dhungala Children’s Choir is part of that. Jess arranged the parts and sang with the choir, with Alice Keath conducting.
10 Shalom Aleichem
Jesus was Jewish and I wanted to find a song representing that in some way. Hanukkah is celebrated not long before Christmas so I investigated Hanukkah songs only to conclude that the cultural context wasn’t right. My partner Siân is Jewish and she suggested this one. It’s sung all year round and has a carol-like feeling with a beautiful melody and lyrics that talk of peace, kings and angels. Perfect! I love Lior’s voice and know the album he did with Nigel Westlake for their album Compassion which set Arabic and Hebrew prayers to music. Alice came up with the three-part harmonies, including a bass part for me. It was fun for me to do a few bass vocal parts on this record.
11 The Oxen
A poem by Thomas Hardy which I set to music. This is another one of those interesting layers to Christmas celebrations. Many countries have a folk tradition going back many centuries of animals behaving in miraculous ways to honour the miracle of the birth of Jesus. There is the idea of the normal being suspended for a period of time, animals talking at the stroke of midnight, oxen kneeling. There seem to be links between these traditions and the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival associated with December 25. This is a really sweet Hardy poem, he as an adult knowing that the story of the oxen kneeling could not be true but, imagining himself a child again, “hoping it might be so”.
12 The Friendly Beasts
The animals in this one are in the stable with the baby Jesus. The origins of the song go back for centuries and people like Johnny Cash and Burl Ives have done it. I knew the version by the Louvin Brothers and Kasey Chambers loves the Louvin Brothers too. We have sung their songs together sitting around backstage and we did You’re Learning together on the Foggy Highway record. I knew it would be right in Kasey’s wheelhouse. Dan Kelly joins us for the harmonies which ties in nicely with the other three-part harmony songs.
13 Three Drovers
I was on a mission to find an Australian carol to sing. The composer William James and lyricist John Wheeler wrote 15 Australian carols in three songbooks in the ’40s and ’50s. Some of those carols have been really long-lasting. They’ve been recorded often and you still hear them at Carols by Candelight concerts. Three Drovers is usually sung by a choir so Alice, Sime and I had to find our own way to do it.
14 Christmas Must Be Tonight
A song by Robbie Robertson that appeared on the Islands album by The Band. This is a recording I did with Richard Pleasance in his backyard studio in 2003. Pete Luscombe on drums. Gerry Hale from Uncle Bill, who made the bluegrass album Smoke with me, plays fiddle. Richard plays everything else and sings the harmony. I have always loved the song and Pete does too so it’s good to have it out.
15 Surah Maryam
I was aware that Jesus is honoured as a prophet in Islamic tradition and that there was a chapter in the Qu’ran around the story. That is an obvious link and I was keen to have something representing that literature on the record. There is a rich tradition of the Qu’ran being sung but there are strict protocols around it. Waleed Aly reads the English translation in our version. He has such a beautiful reading voice. It sounds like he’s reading a children’s bedtime story and I like that feeling.
16 Coventry Carol
Alice Keath showed this one to me, a carol from the 16th century. She sent me some different versions and one we really liked is by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, arranged by Alex Palmer and featuring the amazing New Zealand soprano Madison Nonoa. That was our reference. Last year we did a New Year’s Eve show for ABC-TV and afterwards we went back to my place. Alice and Kate Miller-Heidke and Jess Hitchcock were all there and knew it and started singing it as a trio. That was the seed for the recording. Of course the women all sang beautifully in the studio but it took more work for Sime and I to get our parts right, coached by Alice. We were struggling with the top male vocal but when we got Marlon Williams to do it, it all made sense. Alice is a presenter at ABC Classic and one day she saw the great opera baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the corridor. She didn’t know him but asked if he could help out. He very graciously agreed to sing the bass part, some of it doubling with me and some going even lower. That’s quite a thrill to have him on the record.
17 In the Hot Sun of a Christmas Day
I wanted to make sure the southern hemisphere was well represented. The initial working title for the album was No Reindeer, No Mistletoe, No Holly. I ended up deciding the title was too negative but the sentiment summed up our overall approach. This is a song by the Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso, who has been one of my favourite singers for many years. There are plenty of northern hemisphere songs on the record but I wanted to make sure we had the feeling of summer as well. There is summer in this song though not in a festive sense. It’s a song written under military rule in Brazil and there is menace and fear in it: “Machine guns in the hot sun of a Christmas Day/They killed someone else in the hot sun of a Christmas Day.” To me that song is the twin to Arthur McBride.
18 How to Make Gravy
I hadn’t even thought about putting Gravy on the record but when I talked to friends they all said, “Really? You’re not? Just do another version.” Our live version has evolved from the original recording so we said, ‘Let’s lay it down and see what we think.’ We have been doing it forever so it was recorded in one or two takes. It’s 25 years since the song first came out so that’s another reason to have it here. Note that Peter Luscombe played on the original, too.
19 Christmas Train
A song by The Bellrays, a great, raw sounding garage soul band. I had this pegged for Vika for years and, of course, she just ate it up. That was the hardest song to place on the record because it just jumps right out of the box! Gravy was a way into it and having someone who normally doesn’t play the banjo start the next song was a way out of it.
- Come Thou Font of Every Blessing
That’s Dan Kelly playing the banjo. He learned it during lockdown. I discovered this through Sufjan Stevens’ recordings of Christmas music, a song from the 19th century. You hear it done quite differently by other people but we owe our arrangement in large part to him.
21 Intonent Hodie
Toward the end of making the record I realised, I had this big, sprawling double album representing all these different things about Christmas but no Santa song. I talked to Alice about it and she suggested this, a Latin hymn from the 14th century about Saint Nicholas, the forerunner of Santa. It’s a song usually performed by a choir but Alice makes it sound like a folk song, a beautiful transformation. She did it all, the guitar, violin and vocal parts. Alice has been a secret weapon in the making of this album. She is this sprite who keeps popping up throughout, the spirit of the record.
- What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?
This one is sung by Alma Zygier, who is attracting a lot of notice for her jazz singing. She is mesmerizing to watch live and when I was thinking of including this song knew it would suit her. Rather than the usual arrangement, a la Nancy Wilson or Ella Fitzgerald, she did it at home with her father Willy on guitar, sweet and easy. A Christmas record ending with a New Year’s song felt right. The Beach Boys Christmas Album finishes with Auld Lang Syne so there is precedent.