Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

To all my blog readers, my best wishes for a peaceful and memorable Thanksgiving.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

The Christmas Carols Program: Random Thoughts

I did an interview for a local TV station the other day, so that morning I sat down to think about what questions the reporter might ask, and what I might say in response. I am posting some of what I wrote, although it really just touches the tip of all the things I wanted to say about Christmas carols and why I love researching and presenting them. So this is formatted in question/answer format as I thought my way through my responses. Our first performance this year is coming up on Sunday (November 26th, 2:00pm, Alpine Theater, Ripley, WV), so my mind is really wrapped around the topic right now.

 How did you get interested in carols?

My mother was a WWII English war bride, and she brought many of her favorite English Christmas traditions with her to America. Things like making fruitcake and plum pudding on stir-up day, decorating with lots of live greens, making mince pies, and singing carols. She loved to sing. There were 13 children in our family so singing carols at Christmas was a lot of fun.

I had always thought about doing a Christmas program around carols as a way to bring people together to sing. I happened on the story behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer accidentally and I was so intrigued I began looking into the background of other carols. This book is actually a reprint of the original Rudolph book, and the song which was developed from the story varies quite a bit from the way Bob May wrote it in 1939.

Some of the most famous carols, like Frosty the Snowman, have great stories—and Frosty, as you know, was written Jack Rollins from Keyser, WV. I found others with Appalachian connections as well.

The more I researched, the more fascinated I became. I ran into my friend Jeff Seager one day and we got talking about carols somehow and I was telling him about what I’d been doing. He was interested and thought it sounded like fun so we started working together on this program.

As a storyteller, I like to include a lot of audience participation, particularly when the audience is children or family audiences. So as we developed this program I looked for songs that had opportunities to include participation, like Chrissamas Day in the Morning, which really was a harvest song in which farmers acted out the various animal parts. But with the addition of the refrain “Chrissamas Day in the morning…” it became a Christmas song. So we do that one. And there are others that also allow for audience participation. And of course many carols are great for singalong as people either know them or can pick up the refrain easily. Jeff likes to sing Children Go Where I Send Thee, a spiritual that is also a counting song. Some historians believe that slaves used this song as a way to teach counting.

What’s your favorite carol?

I love the traditional ones, like Deck the Halls. They remind me of my childhood and Deck the Halls in particular has such a happy melody. It also has an Appalachian connection you know—it is believed to have originated in Wales, and brought to the US by coal miners working in the coal fields here in Appalachia.

If I have to name a favorite, though…that’s hard. One is The Holly Bears a Berry. This one came from Cornwall, England, and is also called the Sans Day Carol, as the first record of it was noted at Saint Day Church in Cornwall. What I like about this song is the folklore behind it. The song is probably quite old, dating back to pagan and druid times. When Christianity came to the British Isles, the monks sought to lead people to this new religion by adapting the old songs to include Christian motifs. So this one talks about the Holly’s characteristics, and ties them to Christian beliefs. It also includes a nice refrain for the audience to sing along. 

There’s also the Cherry Tree Carol, another one from the British Isles that was adapted here into an Appalachian version. It is one of the Child ballads, one of the very few in that ten-volume collection to have a religious theme.

And then Down in Yon Forest, a haunting tune and rarely heard, at least in my experience. It was collected by John Jacob Niles in Appalachia in the 1930’s, around the same time as he collected I Wonder as I Wander, which is more familiar to most people. But Down in Yon Forest has Arthurian overtones in the lyrics; it was originally sung on Corpus Christi feast day, but in the mountains the line “sing all good men for the newborn baby” was added and it became a song for the Christmas season. I love to sing it.

Where do you offer this program?

All kinds of places! Churches, libraries, theaters, state parks, private house concerts. It really fits almost any venue. And almost any audience, as we can vary the songs to suit the group in front of us at the time.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Frosty Morning Poems

The frosty mornings of this week called to mind two of my favorite poems This first is by Robert Frost, perhaps not one of his most well-known but what images he creates here.


by Robert Frost

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him -- at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off; -- and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It's thus he does it of a winter night.

The second is by Ted Kooser, who is probably my favorite poet, if I had to choose just one. His words paint pictures, but there is as much under the surface of the images as a person cares to seek out. Kooser was the 13th US Poet Laureate. His book Winter Morning Walks is my winter morning companion during the cold season.


by Ted Kooser

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house; 
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.
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