As we approach the end of the centennial year of the birth of Alan Lomax, it seems appropriate to look at recordings of songs and music he collected celebrating Christmas, the new year, and Epiphany. The recordings presented here are all part of the collections of the American Folklife Center, but many have been put online by partner organizations and researchers working to make Alan Lomax’s collections more widely available — with a great deal that is new this year. You may want to take note of these sites and collections to explore them further, so a list of these is provided in the Resources section at the end of this article.
Among the earliest Christmas songs recorded by Alan Lomax currently available online are from fieldwork he did in Kentucky with his new wife, Elizabeth, in 1937. These include a fiddle tune, “Old Christmas,” played by Boyd Asher and recorded in Hyden, Kentucky and “Away in a Manger,” sung by a six-year-old child, Betty Sue Shepard, in Cumberland, Kentucky. Elizabeth Lomax can be heard giving the name of the singer at the end of this song. On the same trip they recorded “Fair Charlotte” (also known as “Young Charlotte”), a tragic ballad not usually thought of as a Christmas song, but in this version it is a celebration of Christmas time that causes Charlotte to go out in her carriage without enough wrapped over her fined dress to keep her warm, and arrives frozen to death at the party.1
The next year Alan Lomax went on his first solo documentation trip to Michigan and Wisconsin. There he recorded “Christmas Evening,” a sad Irish ballad about a death at Christmas sung by John W. Green and recorded by Alan Lomax in Saint James, Beaver Island, Michigan, in 1938.2
In 1940 Alan Lomax hosted a CBS radio show called, Back Where I Come From, and for a Christmas treat, he presented “Christmas Songs with Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives.” Guthrie sang a song for children that he composed for the occasion, while Burl Ives sang a version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Both talked about early Christmas traditions, including gift-giving on “old Christmas” (Epiphany) instead of Christmas morning. This and other radio shows that Alan Lomax produced are available on the Association for Cultural Equity web site.
Lomax spent Christmas 1952 in Spain and collected songs in many regions in the last months of 1952 and January of 1953. An instrument associated with Christmas and often carried by carolers, the ximbomba (or zambomba ) is found in many parts of the country, and is usually home-made. It is made from a clay-pot drum with a reed cane attached to the head. The reed is moistened and rubbed to create the characteristic sound. Drums made out of various sized clay pots have different sounds. Here is a group of ximbombas being played by a group of young people in Lagartera, Castilla-La Mancha. After playing for a bit, they sing a song, “Ronda de Nochebuena.”
In the Balearic Islands of Spain Lomax recorded an interesting style of singing with gutteral adornment. “Caramelles Cobla,” is sung by Miquel Bonet (Can Frare or Jaia), Josep Cardona (Pep Pujoleti), and Josep Marí Prats (Pep den Rotes) of Sant Josep in this ancient Mediterranean style.
In January 1953 Alan Lomax was recording songs in the Basque country of Spain. This Basque song for Christmas Eve tells of the shepherds bringing lambs as gifts for the baby Jesus: “Abenduko hilaren hogeitalauean” sung by a group of men in Tolosa, País Vasco, Spain, on New Years Day, 1953.3
Alan Lomax made many recordings of songs sung by the late collector and singer Jean Ritchie, who learned much of her repertoire in Kentucky. In 1959 he recorded her at his apartment in New York City. Along with some familiar Christmas songs, she sings some that are unusual, such as “Christmas Day in the Morning,” which describes the activities of various animals on Christmas and is certain to delight children. Her version of “I Saw Three Ships” (Come Sailing In), uses a familiar lyric sung to a different tune than the one widely known.
Lomax traveled in the Southeast making recordings in 1959 and 1960. Vera Hall Ward was an African American singer from Alabama who was recorded by several folklorists. This is her rendition of “The Last Month of the Year,” with an introduction to remind us of the joy of Christmas.
In September 1959 Lomax recorded songs at the 56th Annual United Sacred Harp Musical Association Convention in Fyffe, Alabama. The Alabama Sacred Harp Convention sang “Sherburne,” better known as “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night,” and a less well-known “Christmas Anthem.” For those who have not heard this style of singing hymns before, you will hear the choir sing the tune first using names for the notes, fa, sol, la, etc, before they begin singing the lyrics of the songs. Sacred Harp groups at this time organized as white and African American groups with some differences in style and repertoire. These examples are from the white tradition.4
Caribbean bands often translated popular Christmas songs into their own musical styles. In 1962 Lomax visited Gingerland on the island of Nevis, and recorded the Marigolds dance band playing “Noel,” in in the style of a Caribbean dance tune. In this recording, the band leader, Merritt Boddie, leads the melody on the flute.
In 1969 Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers performed “O Day” or “Yonder Come Day” for Alan Lomax. This song may be used on Christmas Eve, New Years Eve, or both for singers who are staying up the whole night, so it is called a “watch night song” and welcomes the dawn. In this interview Bessie Jones and John Davis talk with Alan Lomax about this song and “watch nights.”
Songs for the New Year
New Years Eve and Day are a time for socializing, visiting, and dancing in many cultures. In Quebec, Canada, New Years is an even more festive period than Christmas. In 1938 in Baraga, Michigan, Alan Lomax found Edward King, a Québécois singer, who performed a dance song for the New Year, “C’est dans temp jour de l’an.” In its many verses, the song celebrates the whole of the Christmas and New Year season [part 2 of this song is available at this link. Added 12/20/2018.]
While on a recording trip in Louisiana in 1934, John and Alan Lomax recorded Lunéda Comeaux performing a song for dancing, “Fait le tour” (We danced all night), a song set on New Years Day after a dance. Joshua Caffery has made this and other recordings from the 1934 Louisiana field trip available online. In his book, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings (2013), Caffery notes that New Years Day is an appropriate time for asking a girl’s father if he can court her, so this song may relate to this romantic moment.5
Lomax traveled in Romania in 1964 and collected this medley of songs for the new year in Dragus: “Llaube (The Dawn) / Happy New Year / Strigaturi” performed by an unidentified group of men.
In many places Three Kings Day or Epiphany is celebrated in addition to Christmas. In some cultures it is the day that gifts are given as it celebrates the day that the wise men visited the new-born Jesus. “Los reyes magos,” sung by Araceli Garrido, Carmen Gómez, and Angelines Soberón is a song for Three Kings Day that Lomax recorded in Potes, Cantabria, Spain, in November 1952. That same month in Galacia, Lomax recorded a group singing a song for Three Kings Day with a bagpipe, “Buenas entradas de Reyes.”
In 1962 Alan Lomax was able to record a session of songs performed in French by a group led by Eugene Modestus in Paramain, Maraval, Trinidad. They performed as if they were singing for an all-night vigil at the crèche on the eve of Epiphany or, as they called it “the break up of Christmas,” even though it was the end of April. “Cantique,” is an example of the solemn songs often sung at this event. As the dawn comes, January 6th is greeted with more joyful songs, such as “Bon Novelle.”
I hope you have enjoyed this tour of the Lomax songs of the holidays currently available. More are available in the collections listed below. As you will find as you explore these collections, a many people continue to hard to make Alan Lomax’s legacy available and to support research on the cultures he documented.
1. Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded Warde Ford performing another version of “Fair Charlotte” in California in 1938.
2. See James Leary’s Folksongs of another America: field recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946 (2015) for a study of this recording trip. There is an article in Folklife Today on Leary’s research: “James P. Leary and Folksongs of Another America” by Stephen Winick, July 30, 2015.
3. A translation of this song may be found in the liner notes for The Basque Country: Biscay and Guipuzcoa, Basque translations by Juan-Mari Beltran and Aintzane Camara. Rounder Records, 2004.
4. Folklorist John W. Work recorded “Glory Shone Around,” a version of “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night” sung to a different tune, performed by an African American sacred harp group in Alabama in 1938.
5. pp. 106-107.
Online Collections Used in this Article
Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE), founded by Alan Lomax to disseminate his work, this is the largest “online archive” of Lomax’s field documentation. Songs in this article can be found the radio series Back Where I Come From and the collections Caribbean 1962, Jean Ritchie 1949 and 1950, Romania 1964, Southern U.S. 1959 and 1960, and Spain in 1952 and 1953.
John and Alan Lomax in Louisiana, 1934 is a site presenting recordings made in Cajun, Caribbean, and Creole communities created by Joshua Caffery as a product of his research for his book Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings (2013).
The Lomax Kentucky Recordings, presented by Berea College, The University of Kentucky, The Association for Cultural Equity, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
Also New Online
The Alan Lomax Collection Manuscripts, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Hall, Stephanie. “Songs of the Winter Season Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell,” in Folklife Today, December 19, 2013.
Winick, Stephen. “Auld Acquaintance for the New Year: Burns’s Auld Lang Syne,” in Folklife Today, December 31, 2013.
Winick, Stephen. “Farewell to the Holidays,” in Folklife Today, January 6, 2015 (on Ephiphany).
Winick, Stephen. “Rediscovering Lomax: Joshua Clegg Caffery and ‘I Wanna Sing Right,’” in Folklife Today, August 26, 2015.