Thursday, December 25, 2014

Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins (Book Review #122 of 2014)

Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Stories Behind Books)
Since we use so many of these songs in our worship services around Christmas, shouldn't we Christians learn the origins and intended meanings of the songs? There is so much history, including church history, embedded into the hymns we sing at Christmas, and we are often so ignorant of it. Even non-Christians can appreciate the historical contexts of the hymns. I finished this book the day of my church's Christmas Eve service, when many carols are sung. It gave me a greater appreciation and understanding of each one.

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was the story of John Mason Neale and his translation of the 9th century hymn/poem "O Come Emmanuel" from Latin into English in 1851. When we sing this song, we reconnect with the early church. I'd never examined the verses of the song before, it is a seven-part tale of Advent. Neale is an interesting character, a polyglot whose desire to share the Gospel with outcasts as well as his interest in non-Anglican church history led to his quasi-exile to Africa where he set to work translating ancient Latin texts. The stories behind the lyrics, and the music the lyrics were later set to, make for interesting reading.

Collins, however, skips over Neale's work on Good King Winceslas and Good Christian Men Rejoice. This looseness and errors discovered by various fact-checking reviewers drives this book down to a 3-star rating. Critics have found him to be incorrect about Irving Berlin's thoughts on White Christmas, the "true meaning" of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and his published interpretation of the meaning of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. This makes me skeptical of other things in the book, but a little research finds that the histories behind many songs are quite complicated and historians differ frequently.

Another example of an ancient hymn is Good Christian Men Rejoice, the text of which dates back to at least 1400. Collins credits this work to the German mystic and Dominican monk Henrich Suso, although it's Neale who popularized the work in English.

Here is what else I gleaned from the book:
Many of the Christmas songs traced back to 18th and century England were unusual in that they were written by laypeople in the vernacular and were not accepted by the Church, which already had its centuries-long established hymns that were usually in Latin and quite somber. Some songs were written by dissidents like Isaac Watts and took decades to be appreciated or celebrated.

Angels from the Realm of Glory was originally a poem published in a newspaper, which brought embattled Irish and English some peace. It helped start a movement of new songs in the church instead of the traditional, Latin hymns mandated by the church.

Angels We Have Heard on High has unknown origins but could be from a monastery or even have roots in the first centuries.

Away in a Manger is American, not written by Martin Luther.

Chestnuts Roasting on a Open Fire is by Mel Torme, not Nat King Cole. But the hit attributed to Cole opened the door for more African-American hits in the mainstream.

The First Nowell was probably from England, written by someone with poor language grasp and perhaps illiterate (hence shepherds follow the star). It was likely a folk song for 300 years before being formally written down. 
Do You Hear What I Hear was written during the Vietnam war by a French immigrant, who was both a former Nazi soldier and resistance fighter.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is a Negro spiritual.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen was either from the 15th century (as Collins claims) or the 1760s (as Snopes suggests). Collins holds it up as an example of work by laypeople who wanted to express their faith musically in a different way than the somber, Latin tunes mandated by their parishes. Collins claims that a modern translation would be "God keep you great/mighty, Gentlemen." According to Snopes, the Oxford English Dictionary does not support Collins' claim that "merry" means "mighty."
Longfellow wrote I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day after his son was injured in Civil War, trying to make sense of the madness.

Likewise, O Little Town of Bethlehem came out of a sabbatical to Palestine taken by the distraught minister who officiated Abraham Lincoln's funeral.

Oh Holy Night was the collaborative work of men including an atheist Jew and a Unitarian Socialist. The atheist wrote a poem that was put to music, and later edited and translated into English by a Unitarian Minister in Boston. The verse including "the slave is our brother" was intentionally making a statement in favor of abolition, circa 1855. It was the second piece of music ever to be broadcast over radio.

The precise origins of Silent Night were unclear until about 1995. Silent Night was basically an accident. After the organ in an Austrian parish was damaged by mice, the minister, Joseph Mohr, enlisted the help of a parishioner (Franz Gruber) to write a melody for one of Mohr's poems, "Stille Nacht." Gruber used a guitar and wrote a four-part harmony that was performed at the church on Christmas Eve in 1818. Collins neglects to mention that this version is more lively than the somber one translated into English in the 1850s that we sing today. That song is probably the most widely known worldwide.

I Wonder as I Wander was discovered and published by a Kentuckian, John Jacob Niles, who chronicled American folk music. He happened across a young girl in North Carolina singing the song and was never able to determine its origin. He edited it into a full song and the rest is history.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing was originally composed by John Wesley, who was incensed when it was then re-written and published by George Whitfield.

The musician/comedian Mark Lowry wrote Mary Did You Know.

The more modern Hollywood-created songs covered in this book also have some interesting stories which are covered in this book:

Silver Bells was almost "Tinker Bells" and its authors also wrote the theme song for Mr. Ed.

Judy Garland was instrumental in re-writing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas to be more hopeful, as she had seen the importance of songs like Somewhere Over the Rainbow to troops as she performed in the USO.

In all, I recommend this book for an important look at the history of hymns we sing. But don't cite it as authoritative and be sure to fact-check everything. I had to do a lot of searching as I wrote this review.

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