Some Bluegrass Christmas Songs
Christmas is a joyful time for many, but the season’s short days and long, cold nights can cause difficulties as well. This is the time when most Christians have chosen to place the celebration of the birth of the central source of joy and renewal in the world. But many have a darker and more troubled view of the holiday, perhaps better befitting the time of the year, often fraught with seasonal affective disorder and depression. The stores are full of shoppers and the airwaves vibrate with seasonal music both sacred and commercial. Many people have strained relations with the holiday, while others either reject it entirely or feel rejected by it. My friend, the mystery writer Timothy Hallinan, captures this well in his new detective thriller Fields Where They Lay, as his detective hero investigates theft in a run-down suburban mall owned by gangsters in a town populated by an interesting and varied cast of characters. It provides understanding and hope for those who feel ambivalent about Christmas.
In the song above, the father of bluegrass music is seen with one of the later iterations of his Blue Grass Boys (Dale Morris on fiddle, Blake Williams on banjo, Tater Tate on bass, and Wayne Lewis on guitar) heralding in the season. But Christmas is also treated with a strong dose of the secular and commercial, easing the way for some, while making it more difficult for others. The Moron Brothers, a comic bluegrass duo, are staples at many bluegrass festivals, where they combine satire, cornball humor, rural values, and their faith in an enjoyable show that many find attractive. Here’s their take on Christmas.
But Christmas evokes different kinds of memories and reactions in others. The Battle of the Bulge (December 1944 – January 1945) took place in the Ardennes forest region of Belgium and Luxembourg and represented the last major offensive of the German army in World War II. It started as a possible disaster for Allied forces, but the German siege was lifted by a lightning offensive, led by Gen. George Patton, that drove the Germans back and led to the war’s end in Europe in May. Regional West Virginia band Circa Blue recorded “Bells of Home” by David Morris and Dawn Kenney this year. Morris, not only a songwriter, but also a distinguished journalist, wrote to me, “At its heart, ‘Bells of Home’ gets at something most of us have felt at some point: being homesick at the holidays. Once we identified a soldier as our narrator, the possibilities for images and contrasts came pouring out. The hardest part was finding a battle that fit our storyline … a fierce firefight, in the snow, on Christmas Eve. We found what we needed in Belgium in 1944; with the factual frame and a bit of imagination – neither of us have ever been soldiers – the song came together quickly. It’s a tribute to families, to traditions, and to those who gave up their holidays – some temporarily, some permanently – simply because, as the song notes, ‘some things are worth fighting for.'”
Bluegrass, since its emergence in the mid-’40s, has relied on a wide variety of genres for its source material and adapted it to bluegrass instrumentation and its characteristic sound. While many consider it to be a fully Southern phenomenon, the music has grown from many sources, including vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, western swing, and, especially, country music. “Christmas in Dixie” was first recorded by the country/Southern rock band Alabama in 1982. This version, presented by the bluegrass gospel group New River Bluegrass, contrasts Southern Christmas experiences and traditions with the urban Christmas experience.
Tom T. Hall’s career as a country music performer and songwriting storyteller is a legend in bluegrass and country music. In his long career in country music, he has won a Grammy award as a writer of liner notes as well as having a number of top ten hits. During the last decade or so, he and his late wife, Dixie, became mainstays and supporters of bluegrass music, too. His stories often touch the heart, creating an atmosphere of nostalgia and warmth. The song below, performed by Little Roy Lewis of the Lewis Family gospel group along with Lizzy Long, captures a quality not often seen in the antic comedy of Little Roy and tells a heart-warming tale that explores some personal dimensions of the Christmas story.
Bluegrass music celebrates the religious, secular, and family elements of the Christmas season with humor, satire, and faith. Last year, when Sirius/XM radio selected its bluegrass channel as the one that would present Hanukkah music during the winter solstice, bluegrass fans were offended and enraged, seeing in the choice an element of anti-Christmas programming. The satellite radio giant responded by claiming the choice to be random, and this year the celebration appears on a different channel.
The range of Christmas and seasonal music available in bluegrass versions is large, varied, and well-performed. It recognizes many of the divergent seasonal experiences felt by Americans at all levels of society. Many decry the commercialization of the season for good reasons. But at its base, Christmas signifies light in the darkness, the emergence of a brighter and, hopefully, better new year, and hope that humanity can find peaceful solutions to the problems that too often beset us. Merry Christmas!