Reviewed by David Macklem on 11th December, 2019
In the late 19th century, before radios and phonographs became ubiquitous, the music industry was dominated by sheet music publishers. There were two ways to hear new music. One was to go to a live concert, but in some places, concerts were rare. The other was to buy sheet music from salesmen, who walked through neighborhoods whistling the melody of the song they were selling. Parlor music was all the rage. The Christmas canon worked especially well, as everyone was familiar with it. This is particularly true for those families who attended churches that used a common hymnal.
This culture of family playing and singing has largely died out, which is a shame. In the family home of 2019, you can often find family members sitting next to each other wearing headphones, in their own musical worlds. Children still learn instruments, but the joy of sharing music together seems mostly lost.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle, French-Canadian folk-singing sisters from Montreal, have continued this tradition, and have shared it with us. The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, and accompanying Carnegie Hall concert, involves family and friends, gorgeous old carols and new Christmas originals. It helps that their children include Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and that the friends are Emmylou Harris and Chaim Tannenbaum. The ensemble sounds as timeless and ancient on “Old Waits Carol”, as they do fun and modern on Martha’s original “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”.
On “Counting Stars”, Ian Vincenzo Dow narrates: “Every damn year is the same. I say I’ll come home once I got a little more to show for myself than just getting in trouble.” But the kids do come home at Christmas. “Later on we watched the hockey game with beer and cigarettes, and finally we lay down to sleep in the small beds of our childhood.” This is a real family, in our time, playing and singing together at Christmas. Cherishing the ancient, and living the present. It’s an excellent listen for those who can’t convince their own families to have this kind of experience.
This is a guest review written by David Macklem. If you’re interested in contributing to Records.Christmas, please get in touch with us!