Christmas Music Playlist: Favorite Folk and Religious Songs and Carols


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A collection of my favorite folk and religious songs and songs.

Bbefore Spotify, CDs, tape recorders, radios and gramophones, to enjoy music, you had to either attend a concert or do it yourself. At that time, it was common for a family to own musical instruments (at least a piano), collect songbooks, and serenade each other in social gatherings and after dinner entertainment. As a result, many cultures – especially the Scottish and Irish – have developed a distinctive genre of folk music, with a wide range of ballads and arias, jigs and reels, and an emphasis on melodic simplicity. and storytelling.

In my opinion, the best Christmas carols are not the purely commercial ones that play as background music in shopping malls, but rather folk songs and religious songs with meaning and depth. Many of us are reducing our celebrations this year due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, we have music technology that allows access to past performances and high quality studio recordings. To get you started this Christmas season, here are some of my favorites.

“Arthur McBride and Sergeant”

While the anti-war Irish folk ballad “Arthur McBride and the Sergeant” may not be a conventional “Christmas song”, it does include the repeated chorus “because it was Christmas morning”, which has me. always seemed to be an important moral background.

The story is about an anonymous narrator and his cousin, Arthur McBride, who are approached by a British Army recruiting sergeant, whom they rightly accuse. The song is said to have been written by Patrick Weston Joyce in Limerick, around 1840, during the time of the great famine. Christmas lingers in the background of this song as a symbol of hope, peace and good humor and eventually defeats the looming threat of war. The song was covered by Bob Dylan and Planxty, but by far the best version is by Paul Brady, which features surprisingly complex guitar backing.

“New York Fairy Tale

The gritty anti-sentimentalism of the Pogues’ “New York Fairy Tale” sometimes misled listeners into understanding that it was an “anti-Christmas” Christmas song. But that’s wrong, in my opinion. Human brokenness is the very reason Christmas was needed in the first place. Either way, written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan, and performed as a duet between MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, the song explores the darker side of some modern Irish diaspora experiences in New York City. (This year marks the 20th anniversary of MacColl’s death in a terrible boating accident.)

“Fairytale” is a story about love, alcoholism, promiscuity, poorly spent youth and shattered dreams. Everything is perfectly summed up in these immortal lines,

“I could have been someone.”

“Well, anyone could do it. You took my dreams from me when I first found you.

“I took them with me baby, I put them with mine. I can’t do it all on my own. I built my dreams around you.

McGowan visited writer JP Donleavy to get his approval to borrow the title of his novel (1973), “A Fairy Tale of New York”. The song is also a tribute to the familiar idea that the door to success in the Big Apple is narrow, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. “They have cars as big as bars / They have rivers of gold / But the wind crosses you / This is no place for old people / When you took my hand for the first time in this cold Christmas Eve / You promise me Broadway was waiting for me. “

In our hypersensitive age, the song has become ‘controversial’ among some ‘awake’ guys, so the BBC announced that it would air an edited version on Radio 1 this Christmas, removing the words’ queer ‘and’ bitch. “. (The original will still air on Radio 2.)


Joni Mitchell’s brilliantly poignant song begins with a musical allusion to “Jingle Bells,” then immediately dives into the melancholy first verse, “It’s coming on Christmas / They fell trees / They put reindeer / Sing songs of joy and peace. . / Oh, I wish I had a river / I could skate on it. Mitchell wrote it in 1970 after her split from Graham Nash, whom she dumped via telegram while in Crete. Last year the song was covered by Ellie Goulding and performed very well commercially, although its version was nowhere near as good as the original.

“Silent night”

The story of “Stille Nacht”, now 204, is that it was written by a Catholic priest, Joseph Mohr, in a small Austrian village on Christmas Eve, shortly after the Napoleonic Wars. His text was then set to music by the choir director Franz Xaver Gruber. According to legend, the organ had been damaged by the floods and the Mohr himself accompanied the choir on the guitar. This undoubtedly would have given the song a folk element, which helped it spread around the world by two families of itinerant folk singers (no, not the Von Trapps). The song eventually made its way past the King of Prussia and then New York. The 1935 version of Bing Crosby, which has sold over 30 million copies, is the third best-selling single of all time.

“In the dark middle of winter”

The best thing that ever came out of the Reformation was the English choral tradition which gave rise to a number of beautiful hymns, especially during the 19th century. Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”, originally titled “A Christmas Carol”, is a poem in its own right and was published in 1875 alongside her narrative epic “Goblin Market”. “What can I give him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; / If I were a wise man, I would do my part; / But what I can give him: give my heart.

As a child, I always found the extra ‘I’ in the last line awkward, but now I find it endearing. It also makes a lot more sense, rhythmically, to sing.

There are two famous musical settings of the text, one by Gustav Holst (1906) and the other by Harold Darke (1909). I can never decide which one I prefer, so here are the two, performed by the famous choir from King’s College Cambridge.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

The joy expressed in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is hard to surpass. On Mendelssohn’s glorious melody, the song has undergone a lyrical evolution under the influence of various contributors – Charles Wesley (1739) and George Whitefield (1758) – and is in this regard, to say the least, quite folk! For sopranos (like me), the song has one of the best choral descendants ever written.

I always have a throat tied when everybody’s singing it at Bailey’s house at the end of It’s a wonderful life, followed immediately after by this Scottish classic, “Auld Lang Syne”.


ohm On the subject of Christmas music, this year I released my own single, “Christmas in George Square”, which contains both religious and folk themes. It tells the story of a depressed person and a homeless person who have a meaningful encounter in Glasgow city center on Christmas Eve.

You can watch it on YouTube; go to Spotify, Amazon Music, iTunes; and learn more here.