Tuesday, December 29, 2009


We’ve all heard the story of how, way back in 1816, during a thunderstorm on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the British Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, Shelley’s wife, Mary Godwin, Byron’s mistress Claire Clairmont, and "physician" and groupie John Polidori gave each other serious cases of goosebumps telling scary stories. There was an agreement made that all the participants would write a tale of terror. Shelley and Clairmont never completed theirs; Byron began one but abandoned it; Mary Shelley took her idea and made it into arguably the greatest horror/philosophical classic of all time, FRANKENSTEIN, or, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS.

And then, there was Polidori’s tale. Called "The Vampyre" and published in 1819, it was for many years wrongly attributed to Byron. Almost certainly, the main characters—Aubry, the wannabe man of the world, and the suave, sophisticated, yet brutal Lord Ruthven, who turns out to be a vampire—were based on Polidori and Byron themselves. Byron was at great pains to dissociate himself from its composition, and indeed from Polidori. But the story was embraced by its public, particularly by contemporary French and German Romantic poets, playwrights and composers. In 1821, it was dramatized for the stage by the German playwright Heinrich Ludwig Ritter. Seven years later, the composer Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861) and librettist Wilhelm August Wohlbruck turned Ritter’s play into an opera. DER VAMPYR premiered at Leipzig on March 28, 1828.

Marschner, according to Wiki, was the most important German Romantic composer between the two giants Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. DER VAMPYR was, in fact, quite a favorite of Wagner’s; he produced and conducted it several times himself, and once rewrote the ending of one of Aubry’s arias for his brother, an operatic tenor, who complained it wasn’t "effective enough"—an ambiguous phrase that I, at least, take to mean it didn’t give him scope to show off his high notes.

Wagner’s reworking of the aria did not catch on. In any case, the main character in both story and opera is Lord Ruthven, the vampire, a baritone role. Imagine my surprise when, last night while cruising YouTube, I found this gem: Ruthven’s aria "Ha! Noch einen ganzen Tag" ("Still a whole day"), sung by the operatic love of my life, Thomas Hampson.

I’m not sure exactly when this recording would have been made; at a guess, perhaps the very late 1980s or early 1990s. Hampson is in excellent voice, but—dare I confess—I got the giggles listening to him declaim, "Blut! Ich muss blut!" ("Blood! I must have blood!")
As to whether I would allow him any of mine?

It’s negotiable.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ruling Days

There's a sweet old hillbilly custom that my mom and aunt still follow: the "ruling days." The old people in the mountains and knobs would make note of weather conditions on the twelve days beginning on Christmas Day, as they believed these would correspond to weather conditions in the coming twelve months. Christmas Day "rules" January, yesterday "rules" February, and so forth. The ruling days end on January 6th, to which the old people often still refer as Old Christmas--in the Roman Catholic tradition, the Feast of the Epiphany, the date on which the Magi are said to have visited the Christ Child and given him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Here in the knobs, Christmas Day's weather was cold and cloudy, windy with rain late in the day. January, therefore, will be cold and rainy, especially toward the end of the month, according to the old people. Yesterday, February's ruler, was cold but sunny, while today, March's ruler, is sunny, mild (48 degrees) and breezy.

Right up until January 6th, Mom and Aunt Barbara will keep track of the weather.

And then, we'll see.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Lullaby

Many years ago, when I attended a small Baptist church, the altar call at the end of sermons was frequently a mournfully beautiful tune in a minor key of which I never knew the name or for that matter any of the words. It wasn't until about a decade ago, in a Methodist church I attended at the time, that I learned it was called "Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy", from its opening line, in the Methodist hymnal, in which it was first included in the 1990s. In the old Broadman hymnals, used for many years in Baptist services, it is called "I Will Arise and Go to Jesus" from the opening line of the refrain.

The words to "Come Ye Sinners" were published in 1759 by their author, British minister Joseph Hart. In 1835, a Spartanburg, South Carolina singing school teacher named William Walker--better known among fans of oldtime music as "Singin’ Billy"--set the words to a tune called "Restoration" in his shape-note hymnal THE SOUTHERN HARMONY.

I left the Methodist church in April of 1998, if I recall. In May, I found Doc Watson’s 1990 CD ON PRAYING GROUND, on which he sang a set of Christmas lyrics to the same tune. The words Doc sings are taken in part from a poem by the great British hymn writer Isaac Watts. Doc's lyrics, identified as traditional with arrangement by Doc Watson in the songwriter's credits, are:

Hush my babe, lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently stealing on thy head.

How much better art thou attended
Than the son of God could be
When from Heaven he descended
And became a child like thee

Soft and easy is thy cradle
Coarse and hard the Savior lay
When his birthplace was a stable
And his softest bed was hay

Hush my babe lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently stealing on thy head.

Doc sings with only his own guitar accompaniment, and pronounces the word "gently" as "gentlie"--a very old mountain way, not uncommon at all in traditional mountain music.

I can imagine a mountain mother, awake in the night with a fussy baby, rocking and singing, rocking and singing. . .

Monday, December 21, 2009

An Evening with M. R. James

Imagine a room like this:


Decorated for Christmas, it’s warm and cozy. Now then, imagine that over to the righthand side of the fireplace, there sits a man in a large armchair. He’s not a handsome man by any means, but his face is strongly marked by intelligence and humor—and he is about to work magic.

All stories are magic, but there are some that gain in the telling by being read aloud. So imagine, also, a group of students—all male, for this man is provost of a famous British preparatory school—seated in chairs or on the floor, coltish legs and sharp elbows pulled in, anticipating wonders.

We owe the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas mainly to Charles Dickens. Dickens’s most famous work in the genre, A Christmas Carol, is subtitled Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Dickens, as editor of various magazines in the course of his career, always put out a Christmas annual which consisted in the main of ghost stories, by some of the most famous writers of his day: Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Amelia B. Edwards, and of course Dickens himself.

The man who is about to read to his students, however, was born too late to submit his stories to Dickens. Montague Rhodes James is, however, arguably the finest of all writers of fictional ghost stories.

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936)

Born the youngest son of a Sussex clergyman in 1862, he was also one of the unlikeliest. By profession a historian (mainly of medieval England), he lived out his life a bachelor, first as a Cambridge University chancellor and, for the last eighteen years of his life as provost of Eton. There would seem to be nothing in his background to account for his taste for the macabre.
In his spare time, however, he wrote ghost stories. At first he read them to his fellow Cambridge dons during the Christmas season; later, for his pupils at Eton.

In our own day, we are used to writers in the horror genre who use bloody menaces—serial killers, killer clowns, demons, rabid dogs, kinetically gifted teens (yes, Stephen King, I’m primarily, but not solely, talking about you)—to scare us witless. Not once does M. R. James resort to this type of over-the-top plotline, or, in King’s evocative phrase, go for the gross-out, yet James’s stories can scare one into turning on extra lights, and checking dark corners, strictly by the power of suggestion. In the preface to a collection of his stories called A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS AND OTHER STORIES, the author Ruth Rendall—herself no mean hand at creating uncanny atmospheres—gives a near perfect description of how James achieves these scares:

"His stories begin quietly, often with a description of a place, a town or a country house or library, and his traveller to whom in a little while dreadful things will happen. There are—at first—no ghosts and demons, only a gradually increasing, indefinable, slow menace. And James’s characters bring trouble on themselves by such simple innocent actions, by being a little too curious, by merely examining an old manuscript or borrowing a certain book, by picking up an apparently harmless object on the beach." (pages vii-viii.)

The stories to which Rendall refers, in that final sentence, are, respectively, "A Warning to the Curious", " Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" and "The Tractate Middoth," and "O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad", but the general idea holds true for all of James’s stories. Not to mention that these stories have influenced a good many writers—even Stephen King—who came after James; there is a scene in King’s 1977 novel The Shining that must have been inspired by one in James’s early story "Lost Hearts", in which a young boy is frightened by a ghastly figure he sees in a bathtub.

It is astonishing, as well, that James’s influence should have spread so far when his output in the genre consists of no more than thirty-one short stories.

I suspect, though, that one thing that makes them so memorable is, simply, that James himself first read them aloud—and he must have been a wonderful reader, for none of the fellow professors or students who heard him read them at Christmastime ever forgot them. At least one of his pupils, the English actor Christopher Lee, has read James’s work on BBC radio, and shared his memories of hearing "Monty" in his youth. (James died in 1936.)

I frankly cannot do any sort of justice to James’s work; my powers of description aren’t equal to the task. However, his best stories are available online. These two are my favorites.

Lost Hearts

A Warning to the Curious

These will give you a savor of M. R. James’s variety of dark magic.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bobby Helms's Hat Trick

In 1957, Bobby Helms (1933-1997) had three monster hits in a single year—one of which makes a comeback each Christmas season.

The first of the three was "Fraulein", released on March 30. It told the story of a young man who had fallen in love with "an old German’s daughter/by the banks of the old River Rhine" while serving in the postwar occupation of Germany. Stone country, it went to number one on the country charts and an astonishing number thirty-six on the Billboard Top 100—sort of the "pop charts" back in the day.

A few months later, Helms released "My Special Angel." More overtly pop in construction, and with backing vocals by the legendary Anita Kerr Singers, it went to number one on the country charts and peaked at number seven on the Billboard Top 100. It has proven over time to be the most durable of Helms’s mainstream hits; it was first covered by The Vogues in 1968 and has been in the repertoires of a number of groups ever since.

A few days before Christmas in that same astounding year, Helms released "Jingle Bell Rock." Possibly because it was a holiday-oriented song, and a novelty tune at that, it didn’t make it to number one on its first release; it went to number thirteen country and number six on the Billboard Top 100. However, it was re-released during an additional five Christmas seasons and eventually became one of those songs that—well, it wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t hear "Jingle Bell Rock" at least once.

After those three monster hits, all within a nine-month period in a single year, Helms settled into a comfortable if mediocre career. He never had another major hit, and recorded his last album in 1987. He died in 1997 at the age of 63, and has been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, although I think it’s about time the Country Music Hall of Fame added him to its roster.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday Music: One Bright Star

This song comes from Vince Gill's 1993 Christmas CD LET THERE BE PEACE ON EARTH. I was reminded of it a few weeks ago when I learned that Sis was tapped to direct the kids' Christmas play at her church and had cast the Princess in the lead role. The Princess said (proudly, I thought), "I'm the star."

"Hey, that's cool!" I enthused.

"No, I mean LITERALLY I'm the star. The Star of Bethlehem."

OH-kay. . .

Sis confided later that the main reason she had cast the Princess as the Star had nothing to do with nepotism. True, the role is the largest in the play--but, she added pragmatically, "With her, I knew for certain I could bully her into learning the lines."

Imagine me trying not to ROFLMAO--

Okay, the graphics in this video are moderately weird. But Gill's sweet tenor and the gorgeous harmony vocals overcome the graphics and make a lyrically commonplace song about the Star of Bethlehem into a rare treasure. Hope you like!


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Y'all Gotta Hear This!

I've held forth at length in the past about my love for George Frideric Handel's 1741 oratorio MESSIAH, a work for all seasons that is most popular around Christmas. I was surprised--AWFULLY surprised--when yesterday over at Facebook this link turned up: the bass aria "The People that Walked in Darkness" sung by my beloved baritone Thomas Hampson.

The text is from Isaiah 9:1-7.

This is not a piece I would have thought Hampson would choose. He is a lyric baritone, his voice somewhat less hefty than the weight one would associate with this aria, not to mention that he seldom (or at least, in nothing I've heard him sing) uses his lower register like this.

I think I fell in love all over again--with Handel, MESSIAH, and Hampson--after hearing this.

Monday, December 7, 2009


One of the greatest charms of the original edition of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is the series of color and black and white illustrations done by John Leech (1817-1864). Charles Dickens himself hired Leech to illustrate his "Ghost of an idea", in the process coming into conflict with his publishers. Dickens had grandiose ideas for his little book; he wanted gilt-edged pages, colored endpapers (originally in a chalky green that rubbed off, changed in later editions), and color illustrations, all to be sold at a price of five shillings. He wanted caricaturist John Leech because Leech was known to have a strong social conscience; his political cartoons had attracted Dickens in the first place, and since A CHRISTMAS CAROL had a strong message for the wealthy, Dickens felt his work would be more appropriate than that of his usual illustrator,
George Cruikshank. In the end, Dickens self-financed the publication, broke with his publishers--those sticks in the mud who wanted a more or less chapbook affair--and left his story and us much the richer.

In the event, only two of Leech's illustrations were suggestive of that social message, one obliquely, one overtly. Four were in color; four were in black and white, but they all have an offbeat charm. One was used for the frontispiece of the book: a depiction of Old Fezziwig--to whom Scrooge was, in his youth, apprenticed--and his wife, standing forth to lead the ball guests in "Sir Roger de Coverley" (which we here in the States know as a Virginia reel).

Mr. Fezziwig's ball

Leech perfectly captures the chubby, kindly couple of Scrooge's memory, but others in the series are deliciously eerie. Take, for example, the color etching of Marley's entrance and the scene outside the window through which Marley departs, after warning Scrooge he will be visited by the three spirits.

Marley's Ghost

John Leech's phantoms

Marley, even in a caricature style, gives one a shiver, with his thin transparence; the scene outside the window, foreshadowing the fate that awaits Scrooge should he not reform, is more overt, with the ghosts wailing over the heads of the homeless woman and her child, on the stoop below.

Scrooge is, of course, a tough nut to crack; if he weren't, then we wouldn't have a story. But he is disquieted enough by the memories roused by the Ghost of Christmas Past ("Long past?" "No. Your past.") that he tries to put out its light, in a little drawing that reminds me no end of a candle being snuffed:


Scrooge's encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present, beginning as it does in an all-but-unrecognizable decorated version of his own miserly apartment, is done in bright, uproarious colors, only appropriate for a spirit whose mission is to spread joy and peace:


But even this spirit, grand and jolly though he may be, has hidden a reminder of the poverty and degradation that most societies try to forget: the skinny, dreadful children named Ignorance and Want, before whom Scrooge quails, then begs the spirit to cover them.


Hard upon this horrifying vision comes the most frightening of all the spirits Scrooge has encountered on this night of many wonders: the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who by his very eloquent silence terrifies Scrooge into a realization of the fate Marley hoped to spare him.

ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

That all but skeletal hand, pointing Scrooge onward toward a miser's grave, does more than all the other spirits combined to convince Scrooge to mend his ways.

Leech's illustrations end, as does Dickens's story, with Scrooge sitting down over a wassail bowl with his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, to discuss ways in which Scrooge may help Cratchit's family.


Other artists over the years have illustrated A CHRISTMAS CAROL more lavishly and copiously--among them Arthur Rackham, whose 1915 edition turns the whole book into a delightfully spooky fairyland. No one, however, has ever captured the lessons of the spirits with quite John Leech's elan; his arresting little set pieces remain one of the pleasures of this little book, and are available in any number of facsimile additions.

And as Tiny Tim observed (it's worth repeating, this time of year!), God bless us, every one!

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Being a Story of How Charles Dickens Plagiarized Himself, Got Out of Debt, and Created the Most Famous Christmas Story Outside the Gospel of Luke

Also an ego trip for yours truly, this being probably my alltime favorite of the blog posts I've written in the last three years. Originally posted at Fairweather on November 26, 2007, and again on December 6, 2008, it's getting yet another run here. And thank you for your indulgence.


In October 1843 Charles Dickens was in a bind. Married since 1836, he was already the father of four children and his wife was pregnant with a fifth. His latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit--published in installments, as were his previous ones--was not doing well. Worse yet, he was in debt. As a twelve year old, Dickens had seen his father imprisoned for debt, one of the more charming conventions of European history. He was damned if he would expose his family to that shame and horror. He needed to write a "potboiler" to raise cash, and he needed to write it fast.

Sometime during that dreary October, he had an idea for a story of a miserly old bachelor whose whole character would change after visits from a series of ghosts associated with the Christmas season. Eventually he would call that old buzzard Ebenezer Scrooge, and the little book that told his story was given the name A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being, a Ghost Story of Christmas.

Dickens was, in fact, recycling material he had already covered. In his first great work, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club , he used the theme in a story within a story, told by Mr. Wardle of Dingley Dell. Later extracted from the main narrative of The Pickwick Papers and anthologized as "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," it treats of one Gabriel Grubb, a drunken curmudgeonly sexton who is spending Christmas Eve digging a grave instead of joining in the jollities of the season. He is dragged off by goblins, and changes in character after a series of visions shown him by the Goblin King convince him he lives in a wonderful world after all.

Dickens would enlarge upon that theme. He would replace the visions with actual visits from the ghost of Scrooge's dead business partner, Jacob Marley, and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. He threw in a grossly sentimental subplot (also used in passing in "The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton") about a sickly poor child--Tiny Tim Cratchit--of the sort Victorians adored and wept over. He wrote in a frenzy; he told a friend that he laughed and cried, cried and laughed, throughout the composition. And he delivered it to his publisher in less than six weeks, with very few if any rewrites.

Dickens distributed advance copies of his little "Ghost of an idea" on December 17, 1843; the original printing of six thousand copies sold out within three days of its official December 19 release date. It never looked back; it has never gone out of print. It has been done as a one act play, a musical, and in any number of movies, the earliest being a 1908 production by Thomas Edison. Ebenezer Scrooge even lent his name to a Bill Monroe instrumental on Monroe's 1981 Master of Bluegrass LP.

With A Christmas Carol, Dickens established the tradition of ghost stories being written, read and told at the Christmas season. Until his death in 1870, he produced a number of so-called Christmas annuals consisting of ghost stories written by himself and other Victorian writers. The tradition survived into the 20th century.

And by the way, he was able to pay off the debt that plagued him into writing A Christmas Carol, and was from then on well to do. He was able to leave both his wife, from whom he was formally separated in 1858, and his mistress, an actress whom he met in 1857, independently wealthy to the ends of their lives.

And as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday Music: Early Snow with Loreena McKennitt

Snow seldom comes this early in the knobs, with the winter solstice still a couple of weeks away, but we woke this morning to a couple of inches, white and crisp as linen sheets over lawn and trees and as far on the horizon as one could see. Mom called Sis; the Princess and her friend Miss V had been out playing in it since 8:30, coming indoors occasionally to warm up and gulp hot chocolate, then back out they went. Brother Olde Hippie notes ironically, "White stuff on the ground. Is this what the oldtimers call SNOW?"

It also gave me my theme for Saturday music. The Irish-Canadian musician Loreena McKennitt has, over the course of her career, recorded several winter-themed songs.

One such is "Snow", with lyrics by the Canadian poet Archibald Lampman, (1861-1899). Originally recorded on her 1987 CD TO DRIVE THE COLD WINTER AWAY, it was rerecorded in a slightly different form on 1995’s A WINTER GARDEN.

The wistful carol "In the Bleak Midwinter" was written by the English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) sometime before 1872, although it was not published until a decade after her death. Rossetti titled it "A Christmas Carol" but it is more usually known by its opening line. Set to music in 1906 by the Swedish-British composer Gustav Holst, it is performed here as an instrumental, from McKennitt’s 2008 album A MIDWINTER NIGHT’S DREAM, on which songs from A WINTER GARDEN were reprised and augmented by new recordings.

Now, in mid-afternoon, the sun is peeking out and the snow is melting rapidly, dripping steadily off the roof—an ephemeral but lovely gift from Old Man Winter.