Holiday albums seem to run the gamut from the utterly banal to the truly inspired. There are classics of the genre, among which I would nominate the London Symphony for orchestral perfection at rendering traditional carols; any of several Mormon Tabernacle Choir recordings for choral versions of the same; and perhaps Andy Williams' album from the 1960s for smooth pop vocals of many more recent compositions.
One of the most original and ultimately satisfying holiday efforts was the Kingston Trio's 1960 album The Last Month of the Year. Unlike many other pop artists, some of whom in their holiday albums got way out of their depths in attempting songs that they could not do or crassly altered carols to fit into their pop or rock styles, the KT stayed squarely within their power zone of folk-type music and created a classic album by both presenting genuine folk carols like "Somerset-Gloucestershire Wassail" and "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" (link to last year's Christmas post with some comments on carols in general) and presenting less familiar (to U.S. audiences) folk carols from our country and around the world, often with unusual instruments like the bouzouki. I loved these, especially the spiritual "Go Where I Send Thee," "Follow Now, O Shepherds" from Spain, "Sing We Now Noel" from France, and most especially "All Through The Night" from Wales.
This lovely song is one of several numbers from the Welsh language that have broken through the language barrier to become in translation part of the folkways of English-speaking peoples ("Men of Harlech" would be my nominee for #2 in this category). The Welsh, of course, are an ancient and fiercely independent Celtic group, the last remnant of the ancient Brythons who were driven from their country by the invading Saxons fifteen hundred years ago - and in all that time, they have never given up their national flag, identity or language. Or, I might add, their music - one of the most common remarks I noted on YouTube versions of "All Through The Night" was the plea "Nice, but can't you sing it in Welsh?"
The air to the song known originally as "Ar Hyd Y Nos" is a very old harper's tune that dates back hundreds of years and was published as early as the mid-1700s. But the lyrics with the Christmas theme were added in the nineteenth century by beloved Welsh poet John Ceiriog Hughes, and the English words that we know were rendered apparently very loosely from Hughes.
The KT's version demonstrates their skill with genuine three part harmony, and its fidelity to the original and no-frills instrumentation belie the critics who said that the group could not deliver traditional songs in an authentic and meaningful manner:
Now, back to the source song. Here's the Men's Choir of Wales singing Hughes' words - the number (like "Harlech") is a standard for groups like this:
Welsh-born tenor pop star Aled Jones gives it a go with full chorus in 2002 - ruggedly masculine and beautiful:
The great American baritone Paul Robeson brought his operatically-trained voice to bear in this stately version:
Next, a different take on the song from jazz/blues/pop legend Nancy Wilson - this is non-traditional but somehow works for me:
By way of contrast, Olivia Newton-John (with Michael McDonald) gives the song that breathy treatment we hear so much on American Idol - not my cup of tea at all, but McDonald's harmony partially redeems this version:
Finally, an informal, almost home video of current British pop and folk singer Meinir Gwilym singing in a pub with Anwen Jones - this intimate version is just so right:
So a Merry Christmas to all, remembering the spirit of the season from the man who expressed it best, Charles Dickens - "It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!"