American Folk Songs for Christmas, compiled by Ruth Crawford Seeger

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953) was a pioneering American folk music specialist who selected, transcribed, and placed songs from the vast collections of the Lomax family and others into published works for use in primary schools and homes. Her mission was, in her own words, “to give back to the people songs that belong to them.” [1]

A conservatory-trained musician and budding modernist composer who spent a Guggenheim year in Europe, Ruth shifted her career goals in 1936 when a move to Washington, DC, brought her into proximity of the Archive of American Folk Song and ignited her passion for the homespun music of her own country. Work songs, love songs, prison songs, dance songs, hollers, chants, spirituals, blues, Cajun tunes, ballads with archaic tonal textures—all these and more were preserved on hundreds of aluminum and acetate disks or magnetic tape and wire at the initiative of traveling ethnomusicologists but at the time were mostly unknown outside the small communities of which they were a part.

Her relocation to the nation’s capital was prompted by her music scholar husband Charles Seeger’s being hired onto the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Music Project, a New Deal program to employ musicians, conductors, and composers during the Great Depression and to promote music appreciation and training. Charles’s job was to set up music recreation programs across the US—to get every American singing, playing an instrument, or both. Ruth absorbed his enthusiasm and through his work came to know the folk song collectors John A. Lomax and his son, Alan, who frequently brought folk singers from their recording sessions at the Library of Congress to evening singing sessions and instrumental jams at the Seegers’s Silver Spring, Maryland, home. [2]

Ruth began transcribing and arranging some of the music she was hearing from guests and at traditional music festivals, and John Lomax took notice, enlisting her transcription expertise for two publication projects. She spent many hours at an Ansley turntable, notating texts, melodies, and rhythms so that the musical treasures created and sung in various pockets of the country and collected by her colleagues could be available in print for children’s education and home entertainment, deepening American cultural awareness and celebration.

Ruth keenly felt an urgency to save American folk songs from extinction. Toiling deep in the archives of the Library of Congress alongside the famed father, son, and daughter musicologist team of John Avery Lomax, Alan Lomax, and Bess Lomax Hawes, she sifted through their 10,000 field recordings of native singers and transcribed songs. She helped the Lomaxes produce two sweeping surveys of “people’s music,” Our Singing Country (1941) and Best Loved American Folk Songs (1947), creating notated versions for over 300 folk songs (the second anthology with the help of both her husband Charles Seeger and her stepson Pete Seeger). Fluent in both languages of music, formal and primitive, she moved easily from avant-garde elite to New Deal populist and became the bridge between modern urban and rural traditional music. . . .

American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953) was Ruth Crawford Seeger’s third songbook in a trilogy of inspired generosity: American Folk Songs for Children (1948) and Animal Folk Songs for Children (1950), in addition to an earlier book of piano arrangements, Twenty-Two American Folk Tunes (1937). Tragically, her life was cut short when she died of cancer the very same year this Christmas anthology was published. But Ruth raised her children Mike, Peggy, Penny, and stepson Pete with such a powerful passion for and knowledge of traditional musical forms, few would dispute that the American folk revival started on her knee. [3]

Of all the contributions of Ruth Crawford Seeger, I’m perhaps most grateful for her American Folk Songs for Christmas (Doubleday, 1953; Loomis House, 2013), a book of simple piano arrangements of Christmas or Christmas-adjacent songs from the American English-speaking folk tradition. Direct expressions from everyday people, these fifty-five songs—and one fiddle tune!—were not widely known until Ruth compiled and arranged them for mass publication. Thirteen of them she transcribed from traditional recordings in the Library of Congress, while the others come from folklore journals and collections, shape-note hymnals, and from singers themselves. Ruth hoped this songbook would “supplement the already rich international store of traditional Christmas song,” [4] expanding schoolkids’ and families’ usual Christmas repertoire to include some of these homegrown gems.

Although at least half the selections will still be unfamiliar to the general public, several have become beloved classics, especially some of the African American spirituals, like “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” and “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow.” While Ruth wasn’t the only one drawing attention to these songs—the lengthy Acknowledgments section cites the publisher, society, institution, and/or individual each song was sourced from—she was certainly an important popularizer.

Twenty of these songs were released in 1957 on an album of the same title, American Folk Songs for Christmas, performed by Ruth’s daughters Peggy, Barbara, and Penny Seeger and with children from the South Boston Music School. In 2013 the songs were revitalized with the release of The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs in and out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook by Elizabeth Mitchell and friends. Both albums were put out by Smithsonian Folkways, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution.

One of my favorites is “Baby Born Today,” a “shout” song from McIntosh County, Georgia, that was traditionally sung at Watch Night services at Black churches on Christmas Eve, sung back and forth from leader to group for a long time. [5] Folklorist Robert W. Gordon learned it from Mary C. Mann, a deaconess in the Episcopal Church, when doing field recordings in Darien in 1926.

Another African American Christmas spiritual is “Sing Hallelu,” which is from St. Helena Island, South Carolina. It’s sung here by Elizabeth Mitchell and her husband, Daniel Littleton, accompanied on harp by Elizabeth Clark-Jerez.

Found on Port Royal Island, South Carolina, in 1861, where it was in current use, “Heard from Heaven Today” was reported to be sung regularly in church by the entire congregation with a swaying bodily movement, rhythmical tapping of hands and feet, head nodding, and so forth. It was first published in Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison (1867). It’s on neither the Seeger Sisters’ nor the Mitchell album, but there’s a nice recording by Nowell Sing We Clear:

Ruth Crawford Seeger’s transcription of “January, February (Last Month of the Year),” aka “When Was Jesus Born,” is based on a 1939 field recording of Betty May Bowman and a group of African American women prisoners from the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi. (Other field recordings of the song from the late thirties and early forties are from Alabama and Georgia, so it was relatively common throughout the South.) It has since been widely covered by gospel artists, including the Fairfield Four, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Staples Singers, and Liz McComb. The recording for The Sounding Joy features Amy Helm on lead vocals, as in this video:

Of course the precise date of Jesus’s birth is not known, but dating forward nine months from the feast of the Annunciation, it came to be celebrated in the West on December 25. Out of overconcern for the song’s questionable declaration that Jesus was born “on the last month of the year . . . on the twenty-fifth day of December,” some Christians have chosen to scrap the song, which is a shame, because I see it simply as an acknowledgment of this very special event on our calendars that we commemorate each year at the same time. We need not be so literalistic.

American Folk Songs for Christmas, the songbook, contains eight shape-note, aka “sacred harp,” songs, a distinctively American brand of sacred choral music that originated in New England and was later carried on in the southern United States. These are less improvisatory, more set. The text of “Cradle Hymn” is actually by the great English hymn-writer Isaac Watts, which appeared in William Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835) with the Kentucky folk tune RESTORATION. It’s a lullaby that gently contrasts the comfort and security of one’s own child with the poverty of the infant Jesus.

Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber;
Holy angels guard Thy bed;
Heav’nly blessings without number
Gently falling on thy head.

How much better thou’rt tended
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 thy Savior lay,
When His birthplace was a stable,
And His softest bed the hay.

“Babe of Bethlehem” is another hymn from Southern Harmony, sung here unaccompanied by Peggy Seeger:

(Alternatively, here’s a choral arrangement performed by the Taverner Consort, Choir & Players.)

Despite the book’s title, some of the songs have no direct link to Christmas and are more generically about God’s provision or shepherding or about nature (e.g., “Oh, Watch the Stars”). Some seem to me to be about death, like the lovely “In the morning when I rise, (I’m gonna) tell my Jesus howdy-o” and the widely recorded Appalachian spiritual whose first verse is “Bright morning stars are rising . . . day is a-breaking in my soul.” “Shine Like a Star in the Morning,” too, joyfully anticipates heaven.

The songbook—both the original edition and the reissue—is illustrated by two-time Caldecott Medal winner Barbara Cooney. The illustrations are in black-and-white, and unfortunately all the figures, save for a few in a procession of children on one of the page spreads, respectfully drawn, are Anglo American, despite the collection’s strongest songs being from Black America. I don’t think this should detract from the usefulness of the resource, but I mention it for those who are sensitive to issues of representation.

On a related note, I will just add, for clarification, that these songs are from Anglo and African American traditions. There are other ethnic groups and peoples and communities in America who have been making Christmas music for a long time but are not represented in this collection, and that is largely because it is intentionally restricted to English-language songs—a sensible choice, I think, and still an immensely rich store. Keep in mind that the songbook is from 1953, and it does not claim to be comprehensive. But as America continues to become even more multicultural, I find that caveats are in order, as it’s not entirely clear from the book’s marketing.

Many of the songs from American Folk Songs for Christmas are featured in “Christmastide: An Art & Theology Playlist,” including brilliant renditions from Odetta: Christmas Spirituals (1960), in addition to some of the recordings featured above, plus others.

These traditional American carols from before the commercialization of Christmas are part of a national heritage of folk song. Many have been passed down orally for generations, others had been written out, and each time they’re shared they’re reinterpreted, but they still retain their original integrity. “The most important mission of the Library of Congress is to cultivate and sustain an American Memory,” writes folklorist Carl Lindahl [6], and thanks in part to Ruth Crawford Seeger, a good number of the folk songs in its archive have been rescued from obscurity and brought back into use. These Christmas songs are still lesser known than those of European origin, but I’ve seen some integrated into playlists, hymnals, caroling excursions, concerts, and children’s pageants and am encouraged!

Notes:

  1. Ruth Crawford Seeger, American Folk Songs for Christmas (New York: Doubleday, 1953; Northfield, Minnesota: Loomis House, 2013), 7.
  2. Sarah H. Watts, “American Folk Songs for Children: Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Contributions to Music Education,” Journal of Research in Music Education 56, no. 3 (October 2008): 243–44.
  3. Natalie Merchant, from the liner notes to The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs in and out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook by Elizabeth Mitchell and friends (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkway Recordings, 2013), 10–11.
  4. Crawford Seeger, 7.
  5. Watch Night is one of several old-time American Christmas traditions Ruth describes in her introduction to the songbook, along with mumming in Boston, fireworks in the South and West, wild-turkey shoots in Texas, and so on.
  6. Carl Lindahl, ed. American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress, 2 vols. (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2004), xxiii.

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