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.
We began by recording our own interpretations of classic, well-known holiday songs that I loved. I listened to our recordings of them and shrugged my shoulders, unmoved. It was clear to me that I was going to have to dig deeper. I did, and my digging led me to dive into the work of Ruth Crawford Seeger in a more serious way than ever before, her Christmas songbook becoming my guide. The recordings that her children made from the songbook provided significant inspiration for me as well—first on the 1966 Folkways release American Folk Songs for Christmas, where Ruth's daughters Peggy, Barbara, and Penny played a selection of the songs accompanied by children from the South Boston Music School, and then a larger collection of the same name released by Rounder in 1989 featuring Mike, Peggy, and Penny accompanied by their own children.
I was drawn to the distillation of the Christmas story that emerges in the songbook, in particular the songs about Mary and the baby. To find traditional, devotional music that celebrates of the birth of a child, the experience of the mother, and the response of the community to that event was incredibly inspiring to me and gave me an opportunity to sing about something very close to my heart—a mother's love for her child.
Through her song choices, Ruth Crawford Seeger shined a light on a distinctly American Christmas tradition that might be unrecognizable to us today; in her own words:
These songs grew out of and were used in the old-time American Christmas, a Christmas not of Santa Claus and tinseled trees but of homespun worship and festivity.... They have been chosen for their excellence as songs but even more for the genuineness with which they express the Christmas attitudes and values of the people who sang them and the communities of which they were part. Some have come down, singer to singer, for generations; others are local, homegrown. Some are from oral (folk) tradition; others are of mixed oral and written origin. Some are gentle, rich in poetic fantasy; others are of austere strength. Some are free, improvisational; others are more set in text and tune. Many are of the nature of folk carols. They are direct expressions from everyday people.
I included a handful of songs that I grew up singing in church, a couple of hidden treasures that I found along the way, and a family heirloom that came in the form of a choral arrangement of "Lo, How a Rose" written by my father-in-law, the late Michael Storey Littleton. And here it is, The Sounding Joy.
Here in Woodstock, nestled between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River Valley, we have found a vibrant and generous community of musicians. You will hear my extraordinary neighbors on this album (as mentioned by one of them, Natalie Merchant, in her essay), as well as some welcome honorary Woodstock residents, including Peggy Seeger, Dan Zanes, Suzan-Lori Parks, Joan Osborne, Byron Isaacs, Ken ejinkonye, and Aoife O'Donovan, and our extended family including my brother- and sister-in-law, Michael Littleton and Anna Padgett. I could go on and on about all of these musicians, but if I started, it would be another year before this album would be released, so I will let you find out about them for yourselves.
The infectious joy inherent in these songs was a real point of access for this diverse group of musicians—some who come from many generations steeped in traditional music, some who are skilled improvisers, self-taught or classically trained, some who are children, and one who was the daughter of the arranger herself! One of the challenges in our process was moving between the fresh ideas and input of this ragtag community that was gathering around the goal of bringing these traditional songs to life in new ways, and the desire to make a more formal gesture towards honoring the songs themselves as Ruth Crawford Seeger heard them. From the more simple arrangements—patty cake and call-and-response with children—to the elaborate—a string trio accompanied by a New Orleans beat—we tried to catch some of the immediacy, simplicity, and energy that Ruth found in the songs:
They are fresh, rhythmically buoyant: singing them, it is easy to remember that clapping, foot tapping and religious dancing have been their frequent accompaniment. They are simple and without pretense. They exist because there was a need for them. A considerable number—the response songs, particularly—stem from vigorous traditions of group spontaneity in singing, work and worship.
This album has already seen four Christmases come and go. My daughter Storey was eight years old when we began, and now she is days away from turning twelve; you can hear the years of tremendous growth in her voice. each year new people have come into our lives, and some of their hands and voices have found their way into this music. Our widely drawn family circle has grown, and we remain grateful for the collaborations and friendships that have emerged through the process of making this album. Now it is time to share this record with you. However you and your loved ones celebrate the last month of the year, I hope it is filled with the sounds of joy.
- Elizabeth Mitchell, Woodstock, May 2013