Greetings from the heart of spring. As bright yellow forsythia burst forth from every roadside, spring peepers sing their songs from every pond, and the earth becomes tender and sweet again, I have been immersed in completing this Christmas album, singing songs of dark nights, guiding stars, and a humble birth in a stable. This record began under different circumstances, however, almost four years ago. In the cold, grey light of November, I found myself facing surgery the week of Thanksgiving. I asked myself, after this surgery and recovery, what would I really like to do? The answer was that I wanted to make a Christmas record. We started recording that year and have worked on it sporadically since then. more >>
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Oh, Mary and the Baby, Sweet Lamb
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Storey Littleton, vocals and hand slaps; Ken Ejinkonye, vocals and hand slaps; Daniel Littleton, kalimba, Orff xylophone, and percussion; Kirsten Jacobson, flute
One of my favorite things to do with friends and family is make music with whatever we happen to have around. Sometimes you don’t have instruments handy, but you can use anything to make sounds. You can make rhythms with your hands, your fingers, your knees, and your feet. I love the music of Bessie Jones; her recordings featuring hand-clapping, stomping, and call-and-response singing sound like there is a good time being had by all. I tried to bring some of that inspiration into our version of this song.
Mary Had a Baby
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Storey Littleton, vocals; Sophia Reynolds, vocals; Daniel Littleton, guitar and piano
Daniel’s guitar arrangement was inspired by Ruth Crawford Seeger’s use of dissonance in the songbook—at first you might not notice it, but she always finds a way to incorporate those “close” intervals.
Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Daniel Littleton, vocals and guitar; Michael Merenda, banjo; Clem Waldmann, drums and percussion
With this song I sang the melody right from the songbook, Daniel improvised on the guitar, and we came up with this arrangement. We invited Mike Merenda to play some banjo and Clem Waldmann to play drums, and we wound up with a sparse, bluesy, West African feeling in the song.
Amy Helm, vocals; Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Ruthy Ungar, vocals and fiddle; Daniel Littleton, vocals and guitar; Chris Wood, vocals and bass; Simi Stone, vocals; Marco Benevento, piano; Clem Waldmann, drums and percussion
Daniel and I play in a band called the Silver Hollers with our friends Amy Helm, Chris Wood, and Ruthy Ungar, who join us here. We have been friends and neighbors for many years and get together and play when we are all home at the same time, which does not happen often enough.
Joseph and Mary
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Natalie Merchant, vocals; Daniel Littleton, piano and harmonium; Nancy Chusid, bass recorder; Jean Cook, violin
There is no mention of this story in the Bible, but variants of it have been around for centuries in oral tradition. The original source of the narrative is quite old; it specifies palm trees, and the fruit in the text is dates. In England, cherry trees are central, but there are apparently versions in dif- ferent countries using fruit trees that are culturally specific or significant.
Shine Like a Star in the Morning
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Simi Stone, vocals; Jay Ungar, fiddle; Abby Newton, cello; Emily Schaad, viola; Clem Waldmann, drums and percussion
This is one of several adaptations we recorded for this album of Ruth’s arrangement for a string trio. Many years ago, Daniel heard me playing her arrangement of “Mister Rabbit” on the piano, and he was inspired to do some simple orchestrating. Most of her arrangements have two or three parts, and we started to experiment with different, sometimes unusual, combinations of instruments on the songs.
Joy to the World
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Storey Littleton, vocals; Jay Ungar, banjo and viola; Molly Mason, dulcimer; Daniel Littleton, guitar and piano; Clem Waldmann, drums and percussion
Christmas Eve service at the Congregational church I attended as a child was one of my favorite oppor- tunities to practice harmony singing. I would follow along in the hymnal and sing. When we recorded this song, I didn’t feel right singing the melody, because I have always sung the harmony! So I asked my daughter Storey to join me. Written by Isaac Watts, known as the “Father of English Hymnody,” with some 750 hymns to his name.
Christmas Day in the Morning
Peggy Seeger, vocals; Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Daniel Littleton, vocals, harmonium, and bells; Ruthy Ungar, vocals and fiddle; Kirsten Jacobson, flute; Byron Isaacs, upright bass; Clem Waldmann, percussion
One of the more well-known songs from the songbook, this is the first song we recorded with the amazing Peggy Seeger. Ruth’s arrangement is sparse and deceptively simple. The harmony to the main melody has one close interval that really sets it apart from the accompaniment most people have heard, and we gave this harmony line to the fiddle and flute to play in unison.
Peggy Seeger, vocals and guitar; Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Ruthy Ungar, vocals; Daniel Littleton, guitar
This is an original adaptation of the song “Child of God” by Peggy Seeger. “Child of God” is part of the Christmas songbook, and Peggy recorded an exquisite version featuring the original piano arrangement on her family’s 1989 release. Daniel had adapted the arrangement for guitar, and we asked Peggy if she would like to record it. She told us how she had adapted the lyrics as well, but had never recorded them. Peggy came up with a beautiful guitar accompaniment on the spot, while Daniel played Ruth’s bass line on the guitar. We cannot put into words what an honor it was to have Peggy in our home, singing these songs with us.
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Storey Littleton, vocals; Ken Ejinkonye, vocals; Dan Zanes, vocals and harmonica; Suzan-Lori Parks, vocals, harmonica, and washboard; Daniel Littleton, vocals and harmonica; Amy Helm, vocals; Clem Waldmann, drums and percussion
We had the wonderful opportunity to play con- certs last year with our old friend Dan Zanes and the brilliant Suzan-Lori Parks, and we were thrilled when they accepted our invitation to come to our house to collaborate with us on “Sing-a-Lamb,” featuring our very first harmonica trio!
Great Big Stars
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Daniel Littleton, vocals; Ruthy Ungar, vocals; Jay Ungar, fiddle; Abby Newton, cello; Emily Schaad, viola; Clem Waldmann, percussion
Another of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s arrangements adapted for strings, on this one we added percus- sion to give it the feel of a Moondog arrangement. Our friends Jay Ungar, Abby Newton, and Emily Schaad brought it to life so beautifully. Jay and Abby were close friends of Ruth’s youngest daughter, Penny Seeger.
Baby Born Today
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals and harmonium; Daniel Littleton, vocals and guitar; Ruthy Ungar, vocals and fiddle; Amy Helm, vocals; Chris Wood, vocals and bass; Larry Campbell, mandolin; Clem Waldmann, drums
This song is a “shout”—a traditional part of the all-night Watch Night services held on Christ- mas Eve at churches in the South. In Ruth’s own words: “Song and sermon and prayer flow back and forth with little break from one to the other. Leader and group are joint worshipers and makers of song. A short phrase of music and a brief refrain fill long spaces of night, with each minute detail of the Christmas story lined out—new lines impro- vised, old lines remembered.” The Silver Hollers join us again here, along with the great Larry Campbell on mandolin.
Ain’t That a-Rockin’ All Night
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Kirsten Jacobson, piano and flute; Jay Ungar, violin; Emily Schaad, viola; Abby Newton, cello
This is one of our favorite Ruth Crawford Seeger arrangements, maybe Daniel’s favorite of all, the most haunting song in all of her songbooks.
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Amy Helm, vocals; Teresa Williams, vocals; Daniel Littleton, guitar and piano; Byron Isaacs, guitar
Amy and Teresa knew this melody from the hymn “Ten Thousand Charms.” Daniel arranged it for guitar. We worked it out around our kitchen table, and then we walked down the hall and recorded it.
Bright Morning Stars Are Rising
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Daniel Littleton, vocals, guitar, and harmonium; Kirsten Jacobson, piano; Ruthy Ungar, fiddle; Byron Isaacs, upright bass
This song might be the first “traditional” song I ever learned, back in 1991 when Daniel and I first started dating, and we would spend Saturday nights over at his sister Cecilia’s place in Cambridge singing Appalachian songs with her and her husband. Daniel remembered this one from a record he had called Music of the Ozarks when he was a child. Many years ago when we had first moved to Woodstock, Happy Traum taught us Ruth Crawford Seeger’s version, and we performed it together at one of the solstice concerts that Happy hosts every year. When I learned this new melody, it was a revelation.
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Daniel Littleton, vocals; Elizabeth Jerez-Clarke, harp
Daniel thought the chords in this arrangement would sound beautiful on the harp. I have always loved the harp arrangements that Zeena Parkins did for Bjork, and I think that Ruth Crawford Seeger’s arrangements would sound right at home in such a modern, experimental music context.
The First Noel
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Amy Helm, vocals; Kirsten Jacobson, piano and flute; Clem Waldmann, drums; Molly Mason, bass
Kirsten Jacobson, a longtime collaborator and dear friend, wrote this lovely piano arrangement inspired by Ruth Crawford Seeger. It was Kirsten, a wonderful pianist and flautist, who helped me with this project in its earliest stages. We pored over the songbook and made recordings of many of the songs in their most basic form. Working with her was like opening up the door to what would, years later, take the form of this album. And what can I say about Amy Helm? She is simply one of my favorite singers, ever.
The Blessings of Mary
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Daniel Littleton, guitar, harmonium, and piano; Larry Campbell, banjo; Teresa Williams, vocals; Ruthy Ungar, vocals; Amy Helm, vocals; Kirsten Jacobson, flute; Byron Issacs, upright bass
I first heard this song on the album The McGarrigle Christmas Hour. Seeing their family holiday con- certs has been such a huge inspiration to me, both in general and in relation to this project. In many respects the extended McGarrigle family embodied much of what I see as the spirit of Ruth Crawford Seeger's vision of family music during these family concerts. Their work was inclusive, they had staggering reach as musicians, but they were never too precious about it, always aware of the need for tradition to meet with the dynamism and flexibil- ity of the concerns of the present. What a gift and legacy they have given to us.
Oh, Watch the Stars
Aoife O’Donovan, vocals; Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Daniel Littleton, vocals and piano; Jay Ungar, fiddle; Abby Newton, cello; Emily Schaad, viola; Kirsten Jacobson, flute
This is the first song that drew me into the song- book. I would sit at the piano and play this small song over and over. I have very basic skills as a pianist, and I did feel that Ruth had written these arrangements for someone like me. The arrangement was so simple but elegant and timeless. Our friend Aoife O’Donovan is an extraordinary singer, and I knew this one would be a perfect fit with her voice.
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Storey Littleton, vocals; Daniel Littleton, vocals; Michael Littleton, vocals; Anna Padgett, vocals; Amy Helm, vocals
My father-in-law, Michael Storey Littleton, was a wonderful musician, a great improviser on the piano who loved the music of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. He was also an accomplished organist and minister of music at a local Congregational church. He loved the music of Bach and Buxtehude, and on a few rare occasions he wrote down some pieces of his own music. This arrangement of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is a window into how he heard and approached harmony. His daughter Cecilia introduced her younger brothers Daniel and Michael to three-part harmony by teaching them this arrangement when they were just children. He loved suspensions and close intervals, and this song about a rose that blooms in winter feels just right for this album. It was the last song we recorded for The Sounding Joy.
Mary Was the Queen of Galilee
Gail Ann Dorsey, vocals; Joan Osborne, vocals; Amy Helm, vocals; Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals and harmonium; Daniel Littleton, vocals and piano
While I was doing some research for this album I came across a recording of this song by the Boys Choir of Harlem. The song haunted me, so much so that even when this album was considered “finished,” I knew I still had to record it. I got to know Gail Ann Dorsey and Joan Osborne at benefits we played fighting fracking in New York State this past year, and I am so grateful to them for lending their powerful voices to this recording.
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Storey Littleton, vocals; Daniel Littleton, guitar, piano, and harmonium; Mike Merenda, banjo
Josef Mohr, a priest in a small Alpine village in Austria, wrote the lyrics to this song as a poem in 1816. His friend, church organist Franz Gruber, set it to music two years later. They performed it together on Christmas Eve in 1818, as it was composed for two voices and guitar, with Josef Mohr providing guitar accompaniment.
Singing in the Land
Elizabeth Mitchell, vocals; Natalie Merchant, vocals; Happy Traum, vocals and guitar; John Sebastian, vocals and harmonica; Daniel Littleton, vocals and guitar; Ruthy Ungar, vocals and fiddle; Michael Merenda, vocals and banjo; Lyn Hardy, vocals
When we moved to the Catskills, Happy and Artie Traum welcomed us into the community as they have welcomed so many musicians before us. That first winter, they invited us to perform with them at their yearly solstice concert in Woodstock, and it was there that we met the great John Sebas- tian as well. These folks are an incredible resource and inspiration to all musicians who live here, and of course their influence extends far beyond the Hudson River Valley. We are the luckiest people in the world to have such a deep musical com- munity, whose generosity is on full display here. In this song we were led by the fearless and mellifluous Natalie Merchant through a hymn that tells us some good news about a baby that sits at the doorway to heaven.
Children, Go Where I Send Thee
Daniel Littleton, guitar and piano; Warren Defever, guitar and bass; Clem Waldmann, drums and percussion; Ruthy Ungar, fiddle Individual lines sung by Elizabeth; Elizabeth and Daniel; Storey; Dan Zanes; Amy Helm; Ruthy Ungar; Ken Ejinkonye; Suzan-Lori Parks; Gail Ann Dorsey; Simi Stone; Aoife O’Donovan; Natalie Merchant
I learned this song in elementary school when we would go “caroling in the wings”—our school had unique architecture, in which each grade had its own wing, and the wings joined together in the center. Our brilliant music teacher, Mrs. Reed, taught each grade different Christmas, Hanukah, and holiday songs, and we would carol for each other, probably my favorite day of the year. When we first conceived of this album, this was going to be the first song. By the time we were finished, it was clear that this was the last song, the party at the end of our journey.