2019 Carol Stories
By Rita Maisel
Years of living in a household where a standard rule was “No Silent Night before Thanksgiving” has made Thanksgiving Day the first time I normally practiced Christmas music where family members could hear the tunes and complain. It was not that they did not love and appreciate the beautiful carols, but they got very tired of hearing me stumble through the notes of Silent Night on the old pump organ at our house. No longer living in that house or playing the organ, which stopped providing music years ago, any practicing I do is on instruments at church. These days preparing for the Christmas season often means hours of searching for old and new favorite carols or sheet music. The result of combining that task with writing a weekly column has led to an annual column of stories behind the music. A few of the compositions may have been covered in previous columns and some may be new to local readers. We hope some of your favorites are included.
“Mary Did You Know” will be heard in many church and Christmas programs this year as well as being a favorite carol chosen for piano recitals. The words were written by Mark Lowry in 1984 as part of an Easter presentation on the life of Christ. The beautiful music for his poem was composed by Buddy Greene in 1991, and the first listed recording was by Michael English, also in 1991. As it happened, both Lowry and Greene were members of the Gaither Vocal Band, and that year Michael English was touring with their group. The song soon became a popular Christmas favorite with one of the early recordings done by the Gaither Band with Mark Lowry singing the rendition. It has been released by many others over the years. Lorie Line has a lovely rendition, which I once purchased and found my skill was not up to the music, so it was passed on to a more accomplished musician. However, both the words and the tune were special enough that a phone call to Poppler’s Music in Grand Forks produced another version of the sheet music which is still a challenge that has to be re-learned each year.
“Gesu Bambino” was written as an Italian Christmas carol by Pietro Yon in 1917. In my memory the lovely lilting melody was introduced to Langdon High School by choir director Marty DeVold when I was in high school. The words we sang were in English beginning with “When blossoms flowered amid the snow, Upon a winter night, Was born the Child the Christmas Rose, The King of Love and Light….” Later in college there is a memory of asking music students if they knew the song, and they did not. Later, browsing through a music store in Rockford, Illinois, I spotted the sheet music in a Christmas display and have been playing it ever since. Yes, the pages are now tattered. Readers who also had Mrs. DeVold as a teacher or choir director may also remember this lovely carol.
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is a song of peace written during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 by Noel Regney and his wife, Gloria Shayne. Growing up in Germany, Regney was required to serve in the German Army during World War II. Because he disagreed with the Nazi regime he secretly joined the French Underground. Then came a battle where he was wounded and many of his friends were killed. He left the Germany Army, lived for a time in France and then came to America where he married Shayne, an accomplished pianist who wrote lyrics for a number of popular songs. Disheartened by the despair which prevailed in New York over the growing possibility of war with Russia and based on the missiles in Cuba, Regney wrote the poem which became the words of the song with its theme “pray for peace, people everywhere”. His wife wrote the music to accompany the song which was designed as a prayer for peace and not as a Christmas song. One of the first to record this song was Bing Crosby in 1963, and it has been recorded by many others since that time. People around the world associated peace on Earth with Christmas, and the song is now appropriate both as a prayer for peace and as a popular Christmas carol.
“No Candle Was There and No Fire, in the stable where Jesus was born….” is another Christmas favorite brought to Langdon by Marty DeVold. I am quite sure the Girls Glee Club at LHS sang it, but the copy I found in more recent years was part of a collection of three-part harmony stored in a file cabinet at the Langdon United Methodist Church where Mrs. DeVold had long been the choir director. The song was written in 1909 by Frances Gostling and Liza Lehmann. An interesting bit of trivia on this song came up when I tried to find the story behind its composition and found harp arrangements listed along with comments that it is especially lovely when played on a harp. Langdon people my age knew only two harpists: Helen Schoenbechler and Marty DeVold. We knew both of these ladies played the harp, but I have no memory of hearing them perform.
“O Holy Night” composed by French musician Adolphe Adam was written almost 200 years ago. Known as “Cantique de Noel” it was first heard in the large cathedrals of Paris, and a book about carols written in 1935 lists it as popular worldwide. Adam, whose regular work was in composing comic operas, wrote both the words and the music for this familiar song. In the 1960s while living in Denver I was caught up in a popular holiday craft which involved choosing a Christmas carol as the subject of a holiday felt tablecloth. “O Holy Night” seemed a simpler project to construct in picture form than “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (a popular subject of some of my friends). Weeks of designing stars and an appropriate nativity scene decorated with many sequins resulted in an elaborate gift for my brother and sister-in-law. Felt tablecloths do not launder well so in the following years the projects became church banners or wall hangings. You can still sing along while constructing them if you like.
“The Little Drummer Boy” is thought to have been written by an American composer, Katherine Kennicott Davis, possibly in 1941. Davis was a classical music composer who might have taken the story from an old legend from Czechoslovakia. The Trapp Family Singers recorded this song in 1951, and the Harry Simeone Chorale recorded the song in 1959. The Simeone Chorale version is the first recording I heard of the song and understood at the time that the carol had come to us from France. Current histories of the carol are uncertain who wrote the words or the music, but in my collection of sheet music from the 1960s the song is titled “Carol of the Drum.” In 1968 the television version debuted with Greer Garson as narrator and the drummer boy became known as Aaron with each of the animals having Bible names as well: Samson, Joshua and others. A chart-topping record came out in 1982 done by David Bowie and Bing Crosby. While these recordings appear to list singers or speakers and the renditions do feature drummers, the drummers do not appear to be named.
The carols featured this week are ones you might hear at church services or school programs in the coming days (almost one a day or night!). In a later December column, I hope to use the background stories of some of the favorite secular carols that have come down through the years.