Archive for December, 2010

Bobby Helms’ 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.


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One of the few textbooks I’ve kept from my long-ago college days is one called Medieval English Literature, from the Oxford Anthology series. Falling completely apart (to the point that I should put a rubber band around it to hold it together!), it has copious handwritten notes and highlighted passages scattered through its pages, from the oldest poem known in “Englisc”–“Caedmon’s Hymn”–up through Mandeville’s “Paradise”. It was in this book I first ran across the very important medieval traditions of the miracle and morality plays. From one of the mystery plays, which are based on biblical texts, comes the oddly haunting “Coventry Carol”, one of my favorites of all Christmas carols.

“Coventry Carol” dates to the sixteenth century, with the oldest known text dating to 1534, and the earliest known transcription of the melody dating to 1591. It is one of two songs preserved from a mystery play performed in the city of Coventry in England. Only one good manuscript copy survived into modern times; that copy was lost in an 1875 fire, leaving us with two very poor transcriptions, and badly garbled lyrics, made from it in the early part of the nineteenth century.

The play from which “Coventry Carol” survives was called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, which depicted the story of Christ’s birth as told in the Gospel of Matthew. It was, in context, sung by a woman mourning the death of her child in the horrifying episode known as the Massacre of the Innocents, in which, according to the author of Matthew’s Gospel, King Herod the Great, afraid for his throne when word came that a “King of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem, gave orders that all male children under the age of two in that town were to be taken from their mothers and killed.

By by lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by lully, lullay

Oh sisters, too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By by lully, lullay.

Herod the king in his raging
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and pray
For thy parting, neither say nor sing,
By by lully lullay. . .

Sung like a lullaby, the melody is far divorced from the dreadful subject matter. Those of a vivid imagination can imagine a stunned and grieving mother singing it to her dead child in the streets of Bethlehem.

My favorite recording of this piece is by Loreena McKennitt.

This version comes from McKennitt’s 1995 CD A Winter Garden.

“Coventry Carol” is also a well-known example of the Picardy third–a technical term for a piece sung in a minor key that ends on a major chord, although McKennitt does not end her version so.

“Coventry Carol”, with its wispy delicate tune and dark and violent subject matter, is one of the most haunting Christmas carols from the English tradition. It never fails to send chills up my spine.

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As you know, I have come across some very strange stories in my researches, but this Christmas story is probably, bar none, the absolute strangest. It comes from Ruth Ann Musick’s 1965 book The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales. In notes at the end of the book, Dr. Musick recorded that it was collected from the husband involved, told for truth, in 1948.

The married couple had been out all that day hunting the perfect Christmas tree. The husband could have chosen one in an hour or two and been perfectly happy. His wife, unfortunately, could not. She was, as we say in the knobs, awful partickler. This tree was too tall; that one was too short. That one had too few branches; that one had too many. That one looked fine to her husband, but to her, it seemed already to have needles dropping. And that one–no, no. Just not suitable at all.

Now the husband was getting hungry and frustrated, so they agreed to go home and begin the search anew later in the day or, perhaps, even the next day. But, strangely enough, as they drove home, his wife spotted the perfect Christmas tree.

Trouble was, it was smack in the middle of a cemetery, growing out of a grave: a beautiful pine, shaped exactly as the wife envisioned her tree.

Nothing would do but that she had to have that one. And so, protesting all the way, her husband went into the cemetery and cut the tree, tied it on top of their car, and, still grumbling, headed for home.

The road home was a winding country one, and, at an especially dangerous curve, the couple spotted something odd: a man, standing beside a horse and buggy, sort of halfway in the road. They managed to get around the odd equipage, only to look back and see man, horse and buggy had vanished.

Well, that was very strange, but they went on. Just before they reached home, they saw the man, horse and buggy again, silhouetted against the afternoon sky, but the vision disappeared over a ridge.

When they got home, the husband took the tree inside and set it in a stand and braced it up and watered it, then went off to find something to eat. His wife, ecstatic over finding the right tree, immediately dragged out her boxes of decorations and began trimming the tree. It didn’t take her a terribly long time, but, when she was done, she noticed something strange–something she certainly hadn’t put there–near the top of the tree:

a small decoration in the form of a man, a horse and a buggy.

Horrified, the wife called her husband in to take a look. Between them, they realized that the man looked an awful lot like the one they’d seen, twice, on the way home.

He looked, it seemed to them, as if he wanted to talk.

And talk he did, once the wife, her voice quavering, asked him what he wanted.

He had in life cut many pine trees and given them away to people for Christmas, but those, it seemed, were the only unselfish deeds he had ever done. But he was killed in a buggy wreck, many years before. His last instructions, before he breathed his last, were to his family: they must plant a pine tree on his grave, for by that means, he opined, he would eventually be able to get into heaven, since that tree would represent his generous acts.

And so he was buried, and a seedling pine planted on his grave. Over the years it had grown and grown, and he was, in his afterlife, hopeful that one day it would grow tall enough to reach heaven.

And then, he griped, this partickler, unthinking woman had come along and stolen it–a tree that, in life, he would have cut down willingly and given to her, had it been anywhere else. She had cut down his special tree–and that, he could not forgive.

Oddly, the man seemed to bear no grudge against the husband, who had actually cut down the tree; he reserved his venom for the wife. He told her that he was leaving now, having lost his hope of heaven to the theft she had prompted.

The last thing he told her was that she would suffer the rest of her life for her thoughtlessness and disrespect. But, he added, she wouldn’t have long to suffer, for, when the pine tree was dead, she would die.

Despite their best efforts to keep the tree alive, it died. . .

and, a month to the day after the tree was cut, so did the wife.

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As some of my readers may already know, Mom and I live in a haunted house of a fairly mundane sort. No apparitions, mind; it’s mostly noise, disembodied footsteps, voices from thin air that are distinguishable as male or female, but no comprehensible words, and the really annoying one who calls my name (most recently from outside the house, in a voice that was recognizably my brother-in-law’s–but he was thirty miles away at the time–^_^)

Which made today’s episode all the more interesting–

My dear friend Auntie was here to visit today. Now Auntie was born with a caul, so she’s more attuned to odd phenomena than me. But we both heard this:

We were talking away–Lord knows about what, because she and I get off on so many tangents that wind away from our original topic and once in a very great while even circle back to where they started–when we both jumped nearly a foot because a phone rang.

Thing was, it was not our main phone, in the living room, nor yet was it either my or Auntie’s cell phones. It was one of the high shrill bell tones like I remember from my childhood on the party line: like Sarah calling Andy Griffith, or Speck Rhodes calling Sadie–

and the sound came from my bedroom, over by the back window–where, to the best of my knowledge, there has never, in the house’s sixty-plus years in its present form, been a phone.

It only rang once, a long ring, quite faint, but loud enough to be heard over the TV, where Tchaikovsky was playing background to our conversation.

Auntie and I looked at each other and said simultaneously, What was that?

There was no repetition of the sound.

As I say, neither the house phone nor either of our cell phones has that old-style ringtone, nor is there, or has there ever been, a phone other than my cell in the bedroom.

It spooked us enough that I went and looked out the window to see if there was someone hanging around who shouldn’t have been; there was no one there, and no one running across the yard. We even ventured outside to walk around the house, and found no sign that anyone had been back there anytime. Blackadder, who usually runs to hide if any stranger comes in the yard, was sitting quietly under the cedar tree by the road, and paid Auntie and me no attention whatever until I called his name.

I called Mom and told her about it (she’s still at the skilled nursing facility, and progressing well), and she’s as puzzled as we are; she knew the family who lived here before us, and agrees that, to the best of her remembrance, there has never been a phone with that sort of ring in my bedroom.

I’m wondering whether to replace Tchaikovsky with the Twilight Zone theme–

Very strange–but, again, fairly mundane, just a new manifestation in a house where odd noises are common.

Beats me who might have been calling–

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Ahhh. . .Bliss

In a comment appended to the post “This Christmastide (Jessye’s Carol)”, I griped mightily about not being able to find any of the tracks from my beloved baritone Thomas Hampson‘s 1991 CD Christmas with Thomas Hampson–a collection of classic and popular carols and songs that was the first of his CDs I ever bought, and (blushes) I’ve been known to play in the dog days of August, simply because it’s beautiful.

Well, I got some help, from my blog buddy, friend, and all-around good person Jamie with that little problem. She found three of the songs from that CD that I hadn’t been able to find on YouTube. So please click on her link, sit back and enjoy.

Oh my. . .(sighs)~~

This post was written by Fairweather’s musical personality Hampson Groupie. Having said that, she does so with Faire’s full endorsement. 😉 Faire also recommends you take a look at Jamie’s blog in toto–very interesting and insightful and musical!


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It’s been so many years ago now that I cannot say for certain when I first heard the beautiful American soprano Jessye Norman sing this carol–but it may indeed have been this 1988 performance. The words are simple and moving, and Miss Norman–my favorite soprano, bar none–sings it with the power and grace of an angel.

Truth and hope and love abide
This Christmastide. . .

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A Rose in Her Hair

Here’s an odd story with a Christmas twist: of a ghostly girl with a scarlet rose in her hair, who appeared over the course of several Christmastimes to the only son of a wealthy Virginia family. Originally published in the January 1960 issue of Fate magazine, it was reprinted in the 1997 anthology Phantom Army of the Civil War and Other Southern Ghost Stories, compiled and edited by Frank Spaeth from Fate’s files.

The Harrell family–father, mother and one son–moved into the big three-story mansion near Norfolk, Virginia’s City Park in September of 1908. A bedroom on the third floor was assigned to the son, Eddie; he didn’t occupy it immediately, though, as he was away at a private school for much of the year. Another room, at the far end of the same floor, was assigned to the family’s two servants, both of whom shortly came to Mrs. Harrell and asked that their room be changed. There was, they insisted, something wrong about that room, consisting chiefly of strange noises, whispered and incomprehensible conversations out of thin air, and furniture that moved on its own. Mrs. Harrell, an indulgent mistress, fussed a bit, then allowed them to move to a room beside the “haunted” one. Strangely, they slept undisturbed in the new room.

Eddie Harrell came home for the Christmas holidays a week before Christmas, and slept without incident in his assigned room at the front of the third floor–until New Year’s Eve, right in the midst of the Twelve Days of Christmas. That night, he was awakened from a sound sleep by the overhead light in his room suddenly turning on by itself. Eddie sat up, still half-asleep, and found that, over by the window, a woman was standing: a young and beautiful woman, dressed all in white, with a flaming red rose tucked into her black hair. She was holding one hand to her temple, he recalled, as if to shield her eyes from the light. When he spoke, asking her what she wanted, she vanished; at the exact instant, the light which had wakened him went out, and he found himself wide-awake in complete darkness.

He told his parents about the odd incident the next morning, was told as a matter of course that he must have been dreaming–and then, curiously, warned not to mention the matter to either of the servants, although neither parent explained this prohibition.

In the new year he returned to school, and soon forgot about the mysterious lady.

There was another curious incident at Easter, when a visiting friend of the family, breakfasting before attending a sunrise service with them, was startled to see a young lady in white pass by the open hall door and start up the stairs. She described the woman’s dress in detail: a white lace dress with caplet sleeves and a train; she wore a single red rose in her shining black hair.

Later that night, Eddie saw the woman for the second time. This time, he managed to ask her who she was and what she wanted; she vanished, but he distinctly heard a woman’s voice say, emphatically, “Wait!” in the same instant.

Thereafter, though, she was only seen during the Christmas holidays.

The last time anyone reported the Christmas ghost was during Eddie’s senior year of school, some years later. That time, she was seen, not only by Eddie himself, but by a visiting cousin, who was assigned to sleep in the room the servants had refused to sleep in from the time the the family moved into the house. Just before bedtime, though, Mrs. Harrell told Eddie that she had sent the cousin to sleep in his room, as the gentlemen in the party had been using the unused room as a smoking room that evening.

Eddie reminded them that his room was haunted–by this time, the family had accepted that something odd was happening in that room–but they elected not to tell the cousin, hoping that she would sleep soundly.

Eddie retired to the room the servants so hated, and, for a wonder, fell fast asleep, waking some hours later to find the chandelier overhead blazing and the woman in white standing by a window. This time, she stood in profile, and had both hands over her face.

Eddie got out of bed, and the woman vanished.

Unable to go back to sleep, Eddie moved to a chair and sat down with a book. He eventually went back to sleep, still in the chair, and was undisturbed the rest of the night.

Not so his cousin. At breakfast, she announced that she had had a most unusual “vision”: she had awakened to find the light on and, oddly, that she could see through the walls that separated her room from the one where Eddie was reading in his chair. He was wearing a nightshirt, she said, and there was a woman in white standing behind him, as if she were reading over his shoulder. She described the woman as the Easter guest had, years before, and added, “The rose fell out of her hair. It was lying by the chair. . .and then the whole scene vanished.”

Eddie and his father sneaked upstairs after breakfast.

They found the rose–a fresh-cut one–lying beside Eddie’s chair.

The Harrells left the house shortly thereafter, when the father died unexpectedly, and never returned. Eddie kept the rose in a bell jar, and reported that, a half-century later, the blossom itself looked as fresh as if it had been cut that day, instead of dropped by a ghost fifty Christmases before. The stem and leaves had withered. He never removed the glass cover, or touched the rose, for fear it would fall to dust.

The family never learned who the young woman might have been in life, or why, over the Christmas season, she appeared to Eddie Harrell. Nor did they ever learn if other families experienced the same phenomena as they had.

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