Sunday, December 21, 2008

Alan Mills: Christmas Songs From Many Lands

So when the Tanuki was a kid he, like everybody else of his generation, was obsessive about catching the Christmas specials on TV every year. No VHS yet, don'cha know. If you missed them, or your babysitter made you go to bed too early, you were out of luck. We were religious about pulling the TV listings out of the newspaper every week, circling the specials, and marking them on the calendar.

One of my favorites was How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The Chuck Jones animated masterpiece, of course: we ignore the Jim Carrey monstrosity, and hope karma takes care of everybody involved in it. We had the Grinch book, too, of course, but we also had one other artifact that the Tanuki remembers quite fondly. Evidently he's not the only one, because at least two others have blogged about it. Yes, we had the lp of Zero Mostel reading the book.

Now, this was awesome. But what was even more awesome was Side Two of the record, which had some guy singing Christmas songs from around the world, just voice and acoustic guitar. I loved this side; as a kid, I'm sure I loved it, but then as a folk-revival-obsessed teenager I loved it more.

This year I finally tracked it down. Turns out it was taken from a 1957 Folkways elpee called Christmas Songs From Many Lands Sung In English By Alan Mills. Like most of the Folkways catalog, it hasn't been released on CD, but you can buy it in mp3 form from the Smithsonian/Folkways website. It's also on Amazon and iTunes.

The full elpee has about twice as many songs as were included (pirated? Folkways used to be fairly lax about copyright, I understand, and I wonder if anybody respected theirs) on the Grinch record, and it's well worth shelling out nine or ten bucks for, if you at all like folk musick.

Mills is very much an early folk-revival kind of singer: impeccable diction, highly trained singing. Professional and classy. Everything that I, as a Dylan fanatic, have been schooled to hate in folk-revivalists. Ain't no mud, no bark, no husk on Alan Mills. And I probably would pass on it normally, but somehow his approach works perfectly for Christmas songs. The record sounds like a recital, not a hootenanny, and that's just fine. He's got a beautiful voice, with nice dark and mellow tones, and the folk-guitar accompaniment (by Gilbert Lacombe, not Mills himself) is nifty, nimble and tasteful.

The songs are well-selected, too: only a couple that are familiar to anybody but carol mavens. The rest are a nice mix of African-American spirituals, English ballads, and lesser-known European carols. Excellent renditions of the Greek "Saint Basil," the Russian "Kolyada," the Czech "Haidom-Haidom," the French "Bring A Torch." As you might expect from a folksinger of his generation, none sound especially "authentic," but they're all tuneful, enthusiastic, understated renditions. The perfect antidote to the schlock you hear over the mall muzak system this time of year.

A note: Folkways evidently made their mp3s from an old, battered vinyl copy of the record. You get fifty years worth of scratches and pops. A nice touch, actually.

1 comment:

David Horgan said...

Tanuki - thanks for sharing your story and linking to the Smithsonian Folkways website for more information about this Alan Mills recording. A few notes to add:

- Thanks for making the connection to the Grinch album - I'll have to research the story on that one - stay tuned

- The Alan Mills album is available in three formats from - as a "Custom CD" (we ship you a CD with the original artwork and the liner notes as a .PDF on the disc), a 192k MP3 download (higher bit rate than most services), or a lossless FLAC download (larger file, better sound quality than MP3). Either download file type is the same price.


David Horgan
Online Marketing - Smithsonian Folkways