Dadline: Bluegrass Christmas carols: some dissembling required
Monday, December 17, 2012
For the past dozen years or so, I have been privileged to play in a bluegrass jam session in Radford with some of the finest people and musicians around.
We get together every week at a downtown restaurant for some picking and fun, then we cap the year with a Christmas party that always starts with our own little bluegrass tradition.
We call it "bluegrass Christmas caroling." A hardy band of fiddle-and banjo-toting minstrels strolls up and down Main Street and barges into unsuspecting businesses, regaling owners and customers with the harmonious sounds of the season. We sing a couple of tunes, just enough so that we're not asked to leave.
Bluegrass Christmas caroling is fun for the musicians and the businesses. I have discovered one dispiriting aspect to this tradition, however: Christmas carols are hard to play and sing.
What second verse?
You think you know all the words to "Silent Night," because you have sung it every Christmas season since you were 6 years old, but then you get to the second line of the second verse and already you're not sure if shepherds are quaking, glories are streaming or cattle are lowing. Wait. There are no cows in "Silent Night." Or are there?
See what I mean!
That's why we carolers start with one verse that everybody knows, then meld into a melancholy mandolin solo before mumbling our way through one more verse and heading to the next business.
"Jingle Bells" is easier, but I can only get through one verse of that one, too. Did you even KNOW there's a second verse to "Jingle Bells?" There's like four of them. The second verse goes:
A day or two ago/I thought I'd take a ride
And soon Miss Fanny Flagg/Was seated on my bride
The horse was mean and drank/He had a ... pretty spot
We mumble mumble mumble/And then we all got shot*
That's how I sing it, anyway.
Shoot, I can't even get through the chorus without wondering whether it's fun to ride and sing or laugh and sing.
Usually, we complete our caroling expeditions unscathed and return safely to our weekly jam session, where we play a few other Christmas standards without the pressure of caroling performance anxiety.
Little brains, big carols
The trouble is that because Christmas comes but once a year, we never practice these tunes until Santa has loaded up the sleigh and fired up the GPS. By then, it's too late to whip out a rousing bluegrass version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" that wouldn't make the crowd respond with "You're darn right I do and it's godawful!"
One year, I went caroling with some non-bluegrass friends who were excellent singers, but didn't have any better grasp of lyrics than I did. Our version of "Frosty the Snowman" was an epic fail. Oh sure, everybody knows Frosty was a jolly old soul and smoked a corncob pipe and had those adorable facial features. And then?
Children, however, don't seem to have the problems with lyrics that their addle-brained parents have. Go to any holiday pageant and you'll be wowed by tiny tots who can warble all the words to "Frosty," "Up on the Housetop," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and a heavenly host of songs without a hiccup.
They might not know what "don we now our gay apparel" means or know a yuletide from mistletoe, but dang if they aren't cute when they sing!
I listen with wonder and think: "I used to be able to do that. Before my brain got soft."
The other night, my resident first-grader sang all of "Good King Wenceslas ," a song I have never attempted to sing in my life. She said she learned it from a friend on the playground. I think I'll take her with me when I go bluegrass Christmas caroling.
At least one of us will be able to remember all the words to "Silent Night."
*The actual second verse of "Jingle Bells" goes:
A day or two ago/I thought I'd take a ride
And soon Miss Fanny Bright/Was seated by my side
The horse was lean and lank/Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank/And then we got upsot
I should note that no horses were harmed during the writing of this column.
-- On Tuesday, the Blacksburg Master Chorale will host a holiday sing-along at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church at 7:30 p.m. This event is free to attend, though donations will be accepted.
-- The aforementioned Bluegrass Christmas carolers will wander around Radford tonight at 6 p.m.
-- On Thursday, the 3rd Annual Messiah Community Sing will take place at 7 p.m. at South Roanoke United Methodist Church, 2330 S. Jefferson St., Roanoke. Soloists will include Scott Williamson and Amy Cofield Williamson of Opera Roanoke, Sara Newcomb, Ada Lis Jimena and Leslie Rueff. Ric McClure will conduct; instrumentalists will include organist Judy Clark, pianist Cara Modisett and members of the Valley Chamber Orchestra. Bring your own score and sing along. The event, presented by South Roanoke United Methodist and St. Elizabeth's Episcopal, is free, but donations will benefit CHIP of the Roanoke Valley. 344-4437.
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