Reviewed by Johan Palme on 9th December, 2015
Say the name Burl Ives and mention Christmas and the association will often run to a jolly old man persona, singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” slathered in lavish orchestration, or that anthem of capitalist commodity worship, “Silver and Gold”. But go back a couple of decades, and he was someone else entirely: a protest singer, attending peace rallies and radical gatherings, and a credible folk singer, a close associate of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and more popular than either. A gatherer and populariser of old folk ballads, gently performed with beautiful conviction.
1952, the year he released his first Christmas record Christmas Day In The Morning, was the year everything changed in Burl Ives’s life. Not necessarily because of the record, of course. No, 1952 was the year he made a decision that he’d regret for the rest of his life: at the height of the Red Scare, he went up and testified before Senator Joeseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, giving up hundreds of names of people he’d associated with over the years. The folk community would never forgive him. Pete Seeger called him a “stool pigeon” who “did this not because he wanted to but because he felt it was the only way to preserve his lucrative contracts”. Selling out had a different resonance when the threat of losing their livelihood loomed over people’s heads.
This album is what could have been. Perhaps the best-recorded and most convincingly sung collection of traditional Christmas folk songs ever, expertly picked, it’s got a gravitas like few others. Occasional and tasteful orchestrations creep into otherwise restrained acoustic guitar, and Burl Ives’s voice is allowed to dominate, full of conviction and true love for his music. Whatever the reasons he had for testifying, it’s a damn shame he was never really part of the community again.
Unfortunately, the version that exists for digital download is repackaged as part of a later, inferior compilation. I’ve sequenced it back to normal in a playlist for Spotify, but the version on iTunes and Amazon need to be reordered to be correct. Listen to tracks 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11 and 12, in that order, to get the original album.