Part of being tangentially Mormon – besides the vague adolescent fears about masturbating and the odd desire for lots of kids – is a deeply-imbued belief that you might be able to slack on some holidays, but Christmas is a full-tilt BALLS-OUT EXTRAVAGANZA. Much to all of your annoyance, I’ve already explained the awesomeness of way too much crap on Xmas, but my extended cousins always pushed it further, into the realm of “puttin’ on a show” (even if the show was for the other relatives who weren’t currently singing).
My mom was born into this world, and emerged with the usual penchant for holiday performance, but happened to become one of the most brilliant songwriters for young voices on the planet. Mix those together, and you got her album “Child of Light”, a terribly gorgeous collection of Christmas songs – pretty stunning, given my Mom’s religious commitment wavers somewhere south of “pagan”.
Recorded right around Y2K with family members and professional session musicians, it holds its own with any Xmas mix you’ve got. 25 songs, mostly traditional (the good ones like “Bring a Torch”, “We Three Kings”, “Gabriel’s Message”, etc.) and some originals, my brother Sean directed the singers, and it never gets tiresome.
Because today was a special day for my mom, I’m going to post one of my favorites from the album – and because I’m a pretentious music major, I’ll point out exactly why I love it so much. This is “Shepherds Band”:
:00 Okay, so this one’s a capella, which (in Christmas terms) usually ends up in crazy jazz 6-part harmony, but here we get the straight-ahead theme stated clarion clear, with four parts (SATB). This is my mom’s forte, finding an element of the Christmas story that is completely without treacle and not done to death, and working magic on it. In this case, it’s a number of young shepherds with different instruments, coming to play for the Christ child.
:32 “Now my old bass harp / has a terrible warp…” This is awesome, since my mom is always railing on slant-rhyme in lyrics, and people who try to rhyme plurals with non-plurals, etc… yet she breaks her own rule here to superb effect. I love the different shepherds each bringing their screwed-up instruments to play for the baby, playing on the nativity theme of “world-changing events set in deeply humble places”.
:47 Note the bass singers bring the bass harp, and don’t sing the “tune”, they sing the harmony as the tune, which is cool. I also like the subconscious nod to “Meet Me in St. Louis”.
1:14 “The best I can do / Is a note or two” sung by the baritones about their trumpet comes true at 1:20 when they sing the two notes a fourth apart, the two notes an old trumpet would play.
1:43 The women get short shrift here as both altos (drum) and sopranos (flute) share a verse, but my mom tends to follow a rule that states “no verse shall ever be exactly the same”. Even the chord underneath is different right here, a way to make the song more interesting without upsetting the listener – a trick used by George Gershwin and the Beatles, to namedrop a few.
2:08 Now, this is why I wanted to write stories and songs. Every other human on earth would have switched the lyrics around to keep the kid awake and go out on a boisterous ending. It is a “band”, after all. But she ends with “… and we’ll sing him a lullaby”… which forces the shepherds to play their instruments as quietly as possible to a sleeping baby, ending the song in the exact opposite way it started.
Only my mom would write a Christmas carol about a shepherds band of instruments while explicitly omitting an actual band of instruments. And I understand my musical analysis is completely unnecessary (and might even get in the way) but she turned 79 years old today, and every once in a while, you have to specifically state why you think your loved ones are awesome.
That album of Christmas songs is tied up in a couple of different plans, but if something isn’t figured out soon, I’ll take matters in my own hands and sell it here as downloads during the holiday months. My mom is still kicking ass, still writing for school music books, still traveling around the country despite battling macular degeneration to a draw, but some things are too wonderful to let languish.
In fact, I’m also putting the song “I Saw Three Ships” from the album below, which has a string quartet arrangement I wrote in a beach house in North Carolina as Hurricane Fran barreled towards the coast. Not that you could tell, or anything:
Anyway, happy birthday Mom! We – and I – love you!
Lucy and her grandma, last Christmas