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Archive for December, 2012


Or it may not be.

For doesn’t the music you prefer to listen to so often reflect the mood that you are in at that moment in time?

And then there’s the thankless challenge of breaking down an initial list approaching thirty into ten. That said, after much soul searching, I’d like to think that the ten I have chosen – at least for today would be broadly similar to those I would have plumped for last year and will do next year, and in the years to come. The order may differ slightly but the contenders will remain the same. I make that assertion in the full expectation that the future is unlikely (sorry X Factor) to unearth some sensational new numbers that will threaten the current status quo (those old rockers are not in it by the way).

So I have tried to avoid these potential pitfalls and focus on those songs and performances that transcend current inclination or mood.

A word of warning first.

One type of “music” you will not find in this list are the excrutiating seventies pop confections of Slade, Wizzard, Mud, Shakin’ Stevens and many others that are heard everywhere – TV programmes, shopping malls, parties – and are the bane of my life at this time of year. So if they’re your favourites, I’d stop reading now. And don’t expect to see any of the annual serving of mush served up by Cliff Richard either.

I am also unmoved by those songs that may or may not have a Christmas theme and content, but are forever associated with the holiday period purely because that is the time of year when they first came to our attention, often for commercial reasons. This is why I don’t share the almost universal idolatry of Fairytale of New York, despite the fact that I love both Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I don’t dislike Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? and you cannot knock the tremendous work it has done in addressing famine in Africa. But these are false friends and do not, for me, carry that indefinable spirit and “feel” of Christmas.

I’m an unashamed traditionalist, even sentimentalist, when it comes to Christmas music, indeed Christmas per se. So the list is essentially nostalgic, redolent of past times, especially childhood. And yes, I’m prepared to concede that, on this occasion, age is a contributory factor to this outlook. Maybe it also derives from being surrounded by Dickens from a young age.

Am I saying then that, for a Christmas song to earn my respect or adulation, it must either serve a lengthy apprenticeship – at least half a century – or evoke a romanticised version of a bygone age?

Perhaps I am.

But enough of this – let’s get on with my selection. Cue immediate quizzical looks with number ten.

10. Must Be Santa – Bob Dylan 

Bob Dylan doing a Christmas song? You must be mad, or you’ve clearly had too much egg nog – or both, I hear you scream in disbelief. Well, maybe, but he produced a whole album of them back in 2009. And some of it is rather good. The grizzled near seventy year old voice, ravaged by red wine, cigarettes and constant touring, lends itself rather nicely to some of the old standards like Do You Hear What I Hear?, Winter Wonderland and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, though perhaps less so to the assortment of Christmas carols he tackles.

But this is my particular favourite – a rollicking, boisterous romp with some less than traditional lyrics.

So who’s had too much egg nog now?

9. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow –  Dean Martin

Another standard sung in a more conventional manner. Recorded countless times but, for me, this is the best version. Deano’s lascivious, martini-soaked croon nails it for me.

8. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – The Choir of Winchester Cathedral

Initially, this slot was filled by In the Bleak Midwinter, a lovely carol but perhaps just a little too familiar for inclusion here. I was then reminded, on hearing it for the first time this year, of this beautiful and too little heard melody. But, in truth, it could have been any number of other carols.

7. Here We Come A-Wassailing – Kate Rusby

The first of two – there could again have been more – offerings from the Barnsley Belle. It may only be number seven – at least for today – but it tends to be the first song I turn to each December to kick start the festive season with its atmosphere of celebration and community. A song ripe too for inclusion in an adaptation of any Thomas Hardy novel.

6. Angels From the Realms of Glory – King’s College, Cambridge

And glorious this indeed is. Truly thrilling. As a child, this would fill Rochester Cathedral at the school’s end of term concert more satisfyingly than any other carol, even if I and my school friends were more interested in our card and dice games beneath the pews. But we always found time to join in with our own version of the last line of each verse – something to do with a West London football team if I recall correctly.

5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Ella Fitzgerald

“The Voice” has to have a place on this list. Warm, vibrant, nostalgic – everything that makes Christmas special. Along with Al Jolson, the Andrews Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ella dominated the soundtrack to my earliest years. She has subsequently survived Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, psychedelia and country rock to hold a similarly central place in my affections.

4. See Amid the Winter’s Snow – King’s College Cambridge

The more discerning reader might have observed that my carol selections are not the most frequently heard, hence popular. I have not developed the measure of contempt that the more familiar carols such as Once in Royal David’s City, Silent Night, While Shepherds Watched, O little Town of Bethlehem, Good King Wenceslas, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Nowell and O Come All Ye Faithful might be thought to have bred – far from it, but these and the achingly beautiful melodies of my other selections carry the day for me.

A passing nod too to the two carols that I most associate with my childhood – Rocking and Away in A Manger which we “sang”, sat cross-legged on the frozen wooden floor of Glencoe Road Primary School when, apparently, we’d never had it so good (well, for a six year old, perhaps we hadn’t).

See Amid the Winter’s Snow has added resonance too in that this was my father and eldest brothers’ party piece at the end of the annual freemasonry lodge Christmas dinner and dance. Fuelled by a cocktail of beer, wine, gin and tonic and Irish coffee (not all at once though), they would – so I’m told, I never witnessed the spectacle myself – bring the house down with their heartfelt duet.

3. The Holly and the Ivy  Kate Rusby

This should have been The First Tree in the Greenwood but I could not find a video of Kate’s performance. Instead, I returned to the song of which it and many others are variants. Again, I could have filled this list with Kate’s lovely renditions of traditional carols, supported by the mellow tones of the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.  

2. Run Run Rudolph – Chuck Berry

The nearest thing to a “pop” song in this collection, even though it was recorded more than half a century ago. But what drive, energy, excitement and humour – classic Chuck, the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He may not have written it but he gave it its life.

1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah – Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra

Probably heard – and certainly sung – more often as part of a carol concert, the opening bars of Handel’s sublime oratorio evoke Christmas for me more than any other piece of music, hence its pre-eminent position. A perfect accompaniment to a big breakfast and the exchanging of gifts.

But surely, you say, isn’t this one of those “false friends” you sneered about earlier in this article? After all, wasn’t Messiah first performed in the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742. It’s a Easter, not Christmas song goddamit!

Fair point, but I contend that not only does it fit my “spirit and feel” test, but it has become so inextricably associated with the Christmas season in the public consciousness that it is the most glorious expression of the life, and in this instance, birth of Christ.

I rest my case.

By the end of this journey through the last four centuries of western music you may be wondering if I have “got religion”, and specifically Christianity, so drenched in the christian tradition are my selections. It is an understandable question, to which I can only respond that, though the faith be long gone, the thrill of listening, and indeed reading, how gloriously others have expressed that faith, endures.

So you’ve heard mine. What are your favourites?

Please let me know either by commenting at the end of this post, or replying via Facebook or Twitter.

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Any visitor to San Francisco who still hankers for the Summer of Love might seek some solace in the Red Victorian bed and breakfast on Haight Street, between Belvedere and Cole.

The Jefferson Hotel, as it was  originally known, was opened in 1904 as a resting place for visitors to the newly opened Golden Gate Park, but had its name changed to Jeffrey-Haight in that momentous year of 1967.

Ten years later it was bought by a 52 year old Washington state born doctor in Transformational Art and Societal Change, Sami Sunchild, who immediately set about painting its façade red with 9 other trim colours and renaming it the Red Victorian (though the building is Edwardian of course). Her aim since then has been for the “Red Vic” to embody the ideals that, if only briefly, pervaded the Haight a decade before her arrival – peace, concern for the environment, a sense of community and social justice.

From here Sunchild runs her myriad operations – the non-profit making Peaceful World Foundation, the Peaceful World Center, the Peaceful World Café, the Living Peace Museum and the Peace Arts Gallery, which contains her own bright and colourful artwork in the form of t-shirts, postcards, posters, peace buttons and mugs, available for purchase in the adjoining gift shop.

Every Sunday morning, from 9.00 to 10.30, or as long as its participants want it to last, Sunchild holds “World Conversations” or “conversation cafés”, which “bring people together to talk about topics that matter in their own lives and in the world as a whole”. These are seen as an “opportunity for San Franciscans and travelers alike to get together and share stories of our lives and the lessons we’ve learned, make new friendships and engage in open dialogue”.

In addition to these semi-formal events, guests are encouraged to engage in conversation with the owner and each other over breakfast, whilst passers by are welcome to “drop in” for a chat at any time.

Sunchild, who has travelled extensively, including the Polynesian Islands and much of Europe and North Africa, hopes through her work to build “a global network of travelers and conversationalists committed to doing good for the world and each other”.

Back in the sixties the rooms in the hotel served as “crash pads”, containing Indian bedspreads and other hippie paraphenalia, and accommodated as many occupants as could be crammed in! Using what she calls “Transformational Interior Design”, which enhances the consciousness of her guests, Sunchild has restored it to the state where it now boasts 18 guest rooms, each of which has been designed and decorated by her with an specific theme, such as the Japanese Tea Garden, Flower Child, Redwood Forest and, of course, the Summer of Love (complete with Grateful Dead posters!).

Internet reviews of the Red Vic reveal that Sunchild’s enterprise excites strong emotions.  Many celebrate it for its living embodiment of the hippie ideals espoused in the time when Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and Grace Slick were residents of the area.  Staff are universally regarded as friendly and helpful, and words such as “quirky”, “quaint”, “funky” and “eccentric” are regularly uttered with a smile by visitors and residents alike.

Others complain, however, about a dark, dreary, rundown feel, and lament the lack of private bathrooms in most of the rooms, though those that there are, both private and shared, are beautifully decorated.  Radios, TVs, refrigerators and ice machines, staples of a more conventional modern hotel, are conspicuous by their absence.  Wireless connection can also be unreliable. And the verdict on the food and drink available in the café is similarly mixed.

On my previous visit (preparing this article has refuelled my desire to go again on my upcoming trip), I found the people welcoming, if, perhaps, a little earnest, and  the coffee and vegetarian sandwiches wholesome.

So if you want to get a glimpse, warts and all, of what it might have been like to stay in the neighbourhood in those “heady” days, this is as close as you are likely to come in modern day San Francisco.  Moreover, if you want to understand what makes a historic part of the city tick, a visit to Sami Sunchild’s Red Victorian is essential.

And when you do, pay heed to the words of Sunchild’s When you travel:

When you travel take peacemaking, friendship, learning, and listening as your sacred, God given duty. Refuse to carry with you an empty head or an empty heart. Give thanks for every human encounter,  every bird, animal, every plant that shares this gorgeous planet. Thank them, talk to them, nourish them. Let no greed or selfish thoughts distract you. Let no anger, anxiety, or bitterness accompany you.

Travel unencumbered by too much stuff or by too many pre-conceived ideas. Enter every new encounter with gratitude for another opportunity to learn and listen. To be the happiest and best travel ambassador on earth.

Affirm the natural ability to balance out the injustices of the world. Know that hate crimes will cease when we listen to each other, when selfishness and envy are replaced with compassion and even enemies become friends. Hold in you mind a vision of a peaceful world where travelers are the sowers and seeds of joy!

This message emanates from one of the more than 50 Peace Posters that Sunchild has designed and created and which can be found at www.peacearts.com .

Finally, I am extremely grateful that Sami has taken the time and trouble to proofread this post and given her personal blessing to its contents.

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