Thursday, May 30, 2013

Music Review: Christmas Songs from Many Lands by Alan Mills

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Introduction to folk songs from many lands
Cons: Simple arrangements might get old in a hurry
The Bottom Line:
Simple arrangements
Christmas you won't hear elsewhere
Nostalgic for me

Enjoy a Multicultural Christmas with Alan Mill's Simple Christmas Songs from Many Lands

When I was in pre-school, my family got a record of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  Side one was Zero Mostel reading the Dr. Seuss classic.  Side two featured 13 Christmas songs from around the world by some unknown singer.  Over the years, those songs have become so much a part of my Christmas music collection, I actually put them on a tape when I moved out.

Fast forward to last Christmas.  I mentioned that I would love to figure out who sang those songs and see if I could get digital copies.  After about a minute of internet research on my brother's part (Why didn't I think of that sooner myself?) he provided a name.  The singer had been Alan Mills.  And the songs were about half of the songs from his Christmas Songs from Many Lands, a record originally released in 1957.

This record compiles Christmas folk songs from all around the world.  Now before you think you'll be listening to words you can't understand, don't worry.  Everything has been translated into English for you.

When my family first discovered the digital version of this record, we listened to some samples to make sure we were indeed looking at the correct disc.  There is no mistaking Alan Mills' rich baritone voice and the simple guitar accompaniment.  And that's all you get here, one voice singing and one instrument.  Yes, it can get a bit monotonous, although there is enough variety in the songs to keep me interested most of the time.  I also think the fact that I have a nostalgic attachment to half of the 25 songs on this disc helps me enjoy the whole thing.

Odds are only two songs will be familiar to the majority of American audiences.  Even then, the songs will have slight differences.  "12 Days of Christmas" features fiddlers fiddling for the final verse.  Never heard that anywhere else.  Maybe it is a Canadian verse?  I'm only guessing here since Alan Mills is a Canadian.  And there are two versions of "O, Christmas Tree."  The first is the traditional one, but the second one has a new, haunting melody.  I've never heard it before, but I do like it.

The disc starts off at the beginning of the story as "The Angel Gabriel" announces to Mary that she will bear Jesus.  Sadly, I don't know where this song originated, but it is wonderful.  It's got a minor key and is very pretty.  It's a ballad that pretty much retells the first chapter of Luke.

The rest of the disc doesn't really try to follow the Christmas story.  For example, we've got "No Room in the Inn" next, but "Gently, the Maiden," which talks about right after the birth, long after songs about the shepherds and wise men.

I've heard "The Friendly Beasts" a few other places over the years.  This English carol allows us to listen to the animals bragging to each other about the gifts they gave to the newborn Jesus.  It's a slower, quiet song that almost would work as a lullaby, especially when Alan starts picking the guitar.

On the more upbeat front, there's "Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow."  Obviously, this song encourages the shepherds to go find Jesus.  It's almost toe tapping fast with a fast strum the entire time behind Alan's singing.

One of the songs I hadn't heard before I downloaded the entire record was "Shepherdess, Oh Tell Me."  This song stands out to me because it's one of the few times that there's a range of volume.  Each verse is a conversation between someone asking a shepherdess about her visit to the newborn.  The questions that make up the first half of the verse are louder than the answers.  While the last few verses start out with the same questions (basically, "What further did you see?"), the answers change each time.  And the differences make it very easy to tell if we are getting a question or an answer.

The longest song on here is "Little Bitty Baby."  And this is the song that is supposed to be from America.  The only other place I've heard the song is a bit of it on Jars of Clay's Christmas disc.  Like "12 Days of Christmas," this song adds another number to the song with each verse.  It's got a steady strum that makes it sound pretty repetitive.  The lyrics are interesting.  Each verse starts "Children go where I send thee/How shall I send thee?"  Some of the verses make sense, like "I will see thee three by three/For three was three wise riders," referring to the three Wise men.  But then who are the "Nine who got left behind" or "Eight who stood at the gate?"  The little bit of research I've done over the years makes me wonder if anyone knows anymore.  I have also discovered the song originally had 12 verses, but there are only 10 here.  Logical or not, I find it fun to hear every year.

But this song is actually logical compared to another couple on here.  "King Herod and the Cock" tells what must be a legend about a dead rooster coming back to life to prove to this unbelieving king that Jesus had been born.  Never heard that story before.  And "Saint Basil" features the title character and en encounter he had with speaking paper.  Finally, there's the "The Wren Boys Sing," which seems to be more about drink than anything Christmas related at all.

Most of the songs are very short.  Only three of the 25 selections are over 3 minutes, and almost all of them are under 2 minutes.  Short songs usually irritate me, but in this case it works.  In fact, I think any longer and my eyes would begin to glaze over.  All but three or four songs are about the Biblical Christmas story, so if you don't celebrate Christmas religiously, this probably isn't for you.

Between the nostalgia and the short songs, I enjoy Christmas Songs from Many Lands.  It's very simple, but it's fun for something different during my Christmas celebration.  I'm glad that iTunes has made it available so I can enjoy it again year after year.

Download Length: 46:41
1. The Angel Gabriel
2. No Room in the Inn
3. King Herod and the Cock
4. The Friendly Beasts
5. Bring a Torch
6. Shepherdess, Oh Tell Me
7. The Huron Carol
8. Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
9. Mother Mary, What is the Matter?
10. Mary Had a Baby
11. Little Bitty Baby
12. Joseph Dearest
13. O, Christmas Tree (a)
14. O, Christmas Tree (b)
15. As Lately We Watched
16. Haidom-Haidom
17. Gently, the Maiden
18. I Am so Happy
19. The Simple Birth
20. Fum, Fum, Fum
21. Bagpiper's Carol
22. Saint Basil
23. Come and Sing
24. The Wren Boys Sing
25. 12 Days of Christmas

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