In my Advent Hymns and Carols post, I suggested that one way to keep Advent is to save up the Christmas carols (as much as possible) until Christmastide. But, I do understand why someone would want to start listening to Christmas carols right after Halloween. I sympathize with all the Christmas music over-eagerness. It’s because Christmas music is made to last and it’s made to be shared. It’s because in modern America, Christmas music is really the only folk music tradition that we still treasure on a large scale. And that is our loss.
Folk music is music that is passed down from generation to generation, music that is shared and interpreted, while still keeping a recognizable integrity. At Christmastime, instead of constant novelty in music, we delight in the familiarity of the old — “Silent Night,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Joy to the World,” “White Christmas.” We enjoy hearing musicians interpret a song within a tradition, within a conversation — it’s just “new enough.” At Christmas, we share music with those who are completely different than us. And we actually still have a practice of singing those songs together: the beautiful tradition of caroling.
Our Christmas music tradition is a glimpse of the musical culture that used to exist all the year round. Because we have mostly lost this musical culture, in exchange for constant new music made to be consumed and then discarded, we’ve also lost a way of being in community.
While writing this post, I was thinking of Haley Stewart’s (of Carrots for Michaelmas) post on Halloween where she makes the excellent point that “Halloween is the only night we will meet in a spirit of festivity. It’s our ONLY communal holiday here in the US.” I think it’s the same with Christmas music — it’s really our only communal music. It’s really the only time we experience music in the way that it had been experienced till modern times — as something to keep and to share and to pass down.
When I think of musical culture and folk songs, I think of one of my favorite quotes from The Joyous Book of Singing Games (1914):
“They have stood the test, they live in their own right and the need of childhood. they live because the appeal of the old games is to something deep down and constant in the very fibre and fabric of child-being. They are of the earth, and the wind, and the home, and the heather, and all the gracious commonplaces of human life and circumstance. “For Heaven’s sake,” says Whitman, “Give us songs that do not sound ridiculous in the open air.”
This Christmas, as we sing carols worthy of the open air, perhaps we can also purpose to learn and keep traditional music — hymns and folks songs — in the new year. We moderns are starved for real festivity, hungry for tradition, yearning to be “in tune with the world” (in the words of Josef Pieper). Learning and keeping hymns and folk songs alive — and especially singing them together in community — is a direct and literal way to be “in tune with the world” and consequently, with one another.
And, while we may want to still restrain ourselves from blasting “O Come All Ye Faithful,” in our houses during Advent, when we hear Christmas carols played and when we participate in Christmas caroling (though we know it really should be scheduled for the Twelve Days!), we can delight to participate in a shared musical culture.
*And, besides the Advent and Christmas hymns that we’re posting here on this site, I’d recommend the songbook in the featured image. Ruth Crawford Seeger, (who wrote American Folk Songs for Children,) compiled this beautiful songbook: American Folk Songs for Christmas. And, it’s the basis for the modern folk-singer Elizabeth Mitchell’s lovely album: The Sounding Joy.
This is so true! I love how you put words to it. I was just saying to Pam B. the other night that most of us here in America, melting pot that it is, lack tradition and heritage of any kind. I was bemoaning the outstretching of “cultural appropriation”, (which, I do think we ought to be conscious of) because I think that so many of us are drawn to the practices and customs of other cultures has far less to do with trying to usurp another’s culture than aching for tradition and heritage in lue of our own loss.
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Deeply insightful, and beautifully expressed.
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Thank you, Gill!
Is this abandonment of traditional music & music forms primarily an American phenomenon? Or does it also show up (to a lesser extent, perhaps?) in other Western, or non-Western, countries?
Do you know when and why this started to happen? High-level, the invention of the vinyl record would be an intuitive origin, as it enabled low-cost music distribution … and thus commercialization, and thus an incentive for continuous novelty. But I don’t think it necessarily follows that the rise of commercial music itself would inevitably lead to such a dramatic disappearance of folk music, even in the face of marketing incentives to pooh-pooh it as ‘old-fashioned’. I suppose it could just be that wide availability of commercial music made it that much easier for folk music to fade, alongside the overall weakening of American communities.
I wonder if it follows Westernization period. But then, go to Ireland and Scotland folk music and rich heritage are still there, in spite of all things modern.
I’ve got lots of thoughts on this. I think some of it started with the changing role of music in the Romantic era (i.e. music became a matter of personal performance and identity, rather than primarily composed for the church — women swooned at Liszt’s concerts just like a pop concert). Music gradually changed from being something to participate in to something to passively consume. It moved from being for everyone, to a specialized role for performers. Obviously, recorded music changed a lot for everyone… small incremental changes moving music away from the generalist to the specialist (mirroring much of the modern trajectory.) Anyway, this is a quick response as I’m in a hurry, but I did want to reply and say we should talk about this more some time.
Let’s (talk more)! 💜
Absolutely, let’s talk more, once the holiday rush is past. (You must barely have time to breathe, with all you’re doing!) All this is something I’ve noticed out of the corner of my eye for a while, but is worth more direct attention.
Posting so I can refer to it later: Re ‘modern trajectory’: indeed, similar shifts seem to be happening everywhere… music, art, dance, theater, sports… And, things seem to be shifting in multiple senses… generalist->specialist, amateur->expert, participant->spectator, casual->competitive, …. Though, I suppose these are really just facets of the same thing.