Booklet notes (written in 2004)
“Once in a
year, it’s not thought amiss
To visit our neighbours and sing out like this …”
— We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Every December, just before Christmas, Finest Kind unpacks its repertoire of yuletide carols like so many tree ornaments, brushes them off and readies them to shine anew in the month’s seasonal concerts. All too soon it is New Year’s Day and time to pack them away again for another 11 months.
This means that some of Finest Kind’s own favourite songs and most cherished arrangements go unheard by many of our fans.
As singers of traditional songs, we are keenly aware of the cycle of the seasons, and we have a healthy respect for sacred and secular time. But we also feel that in this modern age, it is no bad thing to forget the calendar sometimes, forsake the here and now, and allow folksong to do what it does so well: bring to mind other places, other times.
And so we offer Feasts & Spirits as a year-round Christmas gift to cheer February and July and any other month that might welcome the cozy glow or icy sparkle of December. It brings some prime Finest Kind carol arrangements to many who haven’t yet heard them, and gathers Yule jewels from our other recordings to be with their fellows— “The Gower Wassail” (Lost in a Song), “The Homeless Wassail” (Heart’s Delight), and a new version of “Shepherds Arise” (Silks & Spices).
Finest Kind meets Charles Dickens
Feasts & Spirits also brings something new to Finest Kind recordings: the spoken word. The highlight of the group’s yuletide season in recent years has been providing the music for Canadian actor John D. Huston’s tour de force performance, “Charles Dickens Reads A Christmas Carol.” On several December nights, John enchants audiences (and us on stage) as he retells the Dickens masterpiece, his only prop a replica of the author’s performing lectern. Talking in the cast dressing room at the end of the 2003 run, we discovered that each of us had wanted to make a Christmas CD “sometime.” Why not, said Mr. Dickens to Finest Kind, do one together—a mini replica of the show? Feasts & Spirits is the result.
Good Will Henceforth
Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, we hope Feasts and Spirits will brighten your activities at this darkest part of the year. We also hope the recording brings you the same enjoyment that good songs well sung, and a splendid tale well told, bring at any time and in any season.
Feasts & Spirits
A Christmas Entertainment
1. Shepherds Arise
Lead Vocal: Ian
Finest Kind’s new arrangement of a vigorous and singable carol from the Copper family, many of whose songs are associated with events in the agricultural or religious calendar. England abounds with lesser-known Christmas carols, many confined to particular regions or communities, and perhaps sung more often in the pub than in church. No doubt generations of stern clergy found them far too much fun to sing.
A Tight-Fisted Hand at the Grindstone
“Marley was dead: to begin with.”
Mr. Dickens, our narrator, entreats us to believe in his tale of wonder, and draws for us one of the finest freehand portraits in English literature of a miser, ringing his attributes like a toll of bells: “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”
3. Horsham Tipteerers’ Song
w. & m. traditional except verse 2 © 2003 Shelley Posen WELL DONE MUSIC BMI
Lead vocal: Ian
This carol was collected by Lucy Broadwood near Horsham, Sussex, in 1880 and 1881, from the singing of Christmas mummers locally known as “tipteers” or “tipteerers.” Its verses were something of a mix: a stanza from another carol about The Annunciation; some moralistic lessons; and several blessings common to other house-visiting wassails. Finest Kind decided to keep everything but the lessons and to add a new stanza written by Shelley.
4. The Face in the Knocker
“It grew foggier yet, and colder!”
Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, begs for Christmas Day off, and Scrooge grudgingly agrees. Later, at his solitary lodgings, Scrooge thinks he sees the face of his former partner, Jacob Marley, in the door knocker, but continues upstairs to his rooms, lighting his way with a single, sputtering candle (“Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it!”). To his horror, he hears a clanking sound that will turn out to be Marley’s ghost, coming up the same stairs and through the locked door into his suite.
5. Gower Wassail
Lead vocal: Ian
This is a somewhat shortened version of the wassail carol recorded for the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1937 by the remarkable singer Phil Tanner of the county of Glamorgan, South Wales. The custom of wassailing ("wassail" means "be healthy" in Old English) seems to have been associated mainly with the apples and cider country of the southwest of England. At Christmas time, villagers visited the houses of the gentry with good wishes and perhaps a song in return for a "wassail bowl" of spiced ale. In some areas, the custom also extended to firing shotguns into the apple trees to scare the devil and ensure a good harvest assuming, of course, that there were any branches left.
Party at Fezziwig’s
“The Ghost stopped at a certain warehouse door, and asked Scrooge if he knew it.”
The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to a Christmas revel thrown by his former employer, the kind and generous Mr. Fezziwig, Scrooge’s heart is stirred by the contrast between the liberality of the host and his own mean treatment of Bob Cratchit.
7. The Holly and the Ivy
Lead vocals: Ian, Shelley
The genius of old English Christmas carols lies in the way they transform common sights, sounds, and objects from everyday English life into signifiers for Christmas. “The Holly and the Ivy,” which first appeared in 1710, turns the white blossom, red berries, thorns and bark of the holly—in itself redolent of old pagan symbolism—into motifs from the life of Christ. Even the chorus, which is a list of seemingly random motifs that may or may not have anything to do with Christmas, is beguiling in a way that manages to reflect both the oak grove and the church.
8. The Cratchits’ Christmas
“Scrooge and the Ghost passed on, invisible, straight to Scrooge’s clerk’s …”
One of the great set pieces of the story, in which Scrooge is taken by the Ghost of Christmas Present to witness the light that Christmas brings to the family of a poor, kind-hearted man. The classic figure of Tiny Tim, “good as gold,” takes his place by the fireside, and in the hearts of readers ever since.
9. “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
by Night” Medley
w. Nahum Tate 1700
Lead vocals: Ann, Ian
Until 1782, this text was the only Christmas hymn legally authorized by the Church of England. And what do you do for decades when you can sing only one set of words the whole of Christmas? You make up dozens of tunes for it, of course—and keep on adding to them even after other carols are made legit.
Finest Kind brings three of these traditional tunes together for a “While Shepherds” medley. The first, popular in the U.S. and known by Ann since her childhood, comes from a 1728 opera by George Frederick Handel. The second is sung in Yorkshire pubs at Christmas under the title “Pentonville.” The third setting, entitled “Cranbrook,” was eventually purloined and popularized as the melody of the unofficial and raucous Yorkshire national anthem, “On Ilkley Moor Baht’at’”.
The Two Children—Ignorance and Want
“The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven as they stood together in a windy open place.”
The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge that the benevolence shown by individuals at Christmas reflects not wasteful frivolity, but a generosity of spirit without which humanity is doomed.
11. The Homeless Wassail
© 1998 Ian Robb SOCAN
Lead vocal: IAN
Provoked by some sad sights on the inhospitable winter streets of Toronto, this song attempts to invoke the Christmas tradition of remembering those who find no room at the inn. In doing so, it borrows from some very illustrious older songs: wassails, carols, and even Stephen Foster's magnificent "Hard Times."
12. Poor Tiny Tim
“The Ghost conducted him to poor Bob Cratchit’s house …”
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come movingly shows Scrooge not Tiny Tim’s death, but the effects it would have on the members of his family. They bravely make mourning clothes, arrange for a burial plot, and comfort each other the best they can until Bob breaks down, unable to contain his grief.
13. The Cradle Carol (Watts’s Cradle
w. Isaac Watts
Lead vocal: Ann
Watts published this hymn in 1706, with 14 stanzas in serious need of pruning (one, for instance, is downright anti-Semitic). Most modern renditions stick to the quite tender lines focusing on the child. Ann learned her version from the singing of Maddy Prior; the melody comes from the old shape note hymn, “Restoration” (312b in The Sacred Harp – “Come Thou Fount of every blessing …”).
14. Christmas Morning
“What's to-day?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes.”
Another great set piece in the story: on Christmas morning, after the Ghosts have worked their magic, Scrooge can’t contain his joy as he converses with a young lad in the street below (“What a delightful boy!”) and purchases a surprise turkey for the Cratchits.
15. O Little Town of Bethlehem
w. Phillips Brooks m. “Forest Green” (trad.)
Lead vocal: Ian Fiddle: James Stephens
Written in 1868 by Phillips Brooks, an American Episcopalian priest, for his Philadelphia Sunday school students to sing at Christmas. Brooks had toured the Holy Land three years before, riding on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he attended the evening service at the Church of the Nativity.
Though the carol is commonly sung in North America to an air written by Brooks’s organist, we prefer the tune popular in England, collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from a farm labourer in Forest Green, Surrey. It was Vaughan Williams who paired the words and music in his English Hymns (1906), naming the tune for the labourer’s village.
The End of It
“But he was early at the office next morning.”
Poor Bob Cratchit: first his own family tricks him into thinking his beloved daughter Martha isn’t coming to Christmas dinner; then his newly benevolent employer gives him the gears before telling him he is going to raise his wages—and the temperature in the office. But all is well: the transformed Scrooge has become “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” The universal blessing of Tiny Tim rings forth as the curtain falls.
17. Please to See the King
Lead vocal: Ian
There is an old just-so story about how the tiny wren wins a flying contest to determine who is the “king of all birds:” it hides on the eagle’s back and launches itself at the zenith of the raptor’s flight, thus flying highest of all. In England, the wren’s royal status was a mixed blessing for it: the Druids considered the bird sacred and ritually killed one at the darkest time of the year. This custom survived in English villages into the last century: on December 26, St. Stephen’s Day, groups of “wren-boys” killed one of the unfortunate birds and went door to door carrying their prize suspended from a beribboned holly bush. Their song called on residents to come out and “see the king.” Happily, the excellent song survives to this day and the traditional slaughter does not (in Ireland, where wrenning is still practiced, they use a live wren).
18. Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem
A.L. Phipps, BMI or Adger M. Pace and R. Fisher Boyce
Lead vocal and Guitar: Ann Mandolin: Skip Gorman
This American carol, found in old hymn books under two different composers’ names, has become something of a Christmas standard in the bluegrass repertoire. It was originally made popular by the Stanley Brothers and appears on more recent recordings by Emmy Lou Harris and other country and bluegrass musicians. Ann learned it the old way, from friends.
Canadian actor John D. Huston has made a specialty of performing solo. Recent shows include “Three Men in a Boat,” “Murder He Wrote,” and the critically acclaimed “Shylock.” John has performed “A Christmas Carol” as Charles Dickens to great acclaim over 300 times in 12 years and in 5 provinces. A member of Saskatchewan's Metis Nation, John lived in Saskatoon when this recording was made, and has since made his home in Toronto.
Finest Kind’s exquisite harmony singing and brilliant arrangements bring a fresh sense of excitement and discovery to the performance of old songs. The trio’s glorious sound, served up in live performance with easy-going humour, has won them a devoted following across North America. The members of Finest Kind are Ann Downey, Ian Robb, and Shelley Posen, all of Ottawa, Ontario.
James Stephens, record producer for numerous Canadian folk/acoustic artists, is also one of Canada’s most versatile fiddle players. He was a founding member of the acclaimed nineties alternative rock band, Fat Man Waving, and has performed with a virtual Who’s Who of Canadian folk music luminaries. James received the 2002 Porcupine Award for “Producer of the Year.” Stove Studios is in Chelsea, Quebec.
John D. Huston sincerely thanks —
Finest Kind, for kindly agreeing to collaborate on a CD.
L.N. Turner, for unwavering support through many a Christmas past.
Pat, Burleigh, and all my hosts through the years for their hospitality.
My audiences over the past twelve years for helping me shape the performance text of Christmas Carol.
Charles Dickens, without whom none of what I do here would be possible.
Finest Kind warmly thanks —
John D. Huston, for kindly inviting us to accompany Charles Dickens on his stage.
Robyn Boyd and Wooden Ship Productions for helping us reach ever more widely scattered audiences.
The radio DJs across this continent and beyond who play our CDs and promote our music.
The folk music presenters, artistic directors and volunteers who have helped us make music in their towns, and the hosts who have opened their homes to us.
James Stephens, David Bignell, Marilyn Koop and Jenny Walker for making this CD sound and look its best.
Maxine, Val, and Ken, for continued love, support and patience during yet another Finest Kind gestation.
Special thanks to James Stephens and Skip Gorman for their tasteful and creative playing which is the icing on this Christmas cake.
Previous recordings by or with Finest Kind on the Fallen
Angle Music label:
Silks & Spices FAM05 (2003)
Heart’s Delight FAM03 (1999)
Lost in a Song FAM02 (1996)
From Different Angels (Ian Robb) FAM01 (1994)
The above are obtainable from www.finestkind.ca
Recordings by Shelley Posen may be ordered at www.shelleyposen.com
Feasts & Spirits
All songs arranged and all arrangements © 2004 by Ann Downey SOCAN, Shelley Posen BMI, and Ian Robb SOCAN. All songs and spoken word pieces traditional/public domain except as noted.
The Voice of Charles Dickens John D. Huston
Song vocals Finest Kind
Concertina Ian Robb
Rhythm Guitar Shelley Posen
Bass Ann Downey
Fiddle James Stephens
Mandolin Skip Gorman
Recording James Stephens at Stove Studios, Chelsea, Quebec
Mixing James Stephens and David Bignell at Heat of Sound, Ottawa
Mastering David Cain at Shark Fin Digital, Ottawa
Cover Illustration Marilyn Koop, Elora
Design JWalker Design, Ottawa
Photograph (Finest Kind) Ian Robb
Photograph (John D. Huston) Marie Sedivy, Edmonton
285 Spencer St., Ottawa, ON, Canada K1Y 2R1