Christmas Playlist

In anticipation of the liturgical season of Christmas, I’ve created an extensive playlist of hymns, carols, and spirituals—old and new—that celebrate God’s being born in human flesh. Listen to “Christmastide: An Art & Theology Playlist” on Spotify.

The narratives of Jesus’s birth that we find in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke include both bursts of joyful exuberance, as with the angelic choir above a field of sheep, and quieter, more contemplative moments, such as when Mary pondered “all these things” in her heart (Luke 2:19). Jesus was born into darkness, so the story also involves social stigma, deprivation, military occupation, political greed, infanticide, asylum seeking—and the twinge of a future cross. So while the overall tone of this playlist is one of merriment, it does not shy away from some of the decidedly unfestive aspects of the first Christmas. And yet that God, in love, made himself vulnerable to suffering is precisely what makes the incarnation so glorious. He is not distant from human pains and woes but, rather, right in the midst of them, having experienced them firsthand.

The song selections reflect my personal taste for indie folk and newgrass, so they include, for instance, the Oh Hellos, Sufjan Stevens, Wilder Adkins, Branches, Beta Radio, the Brilliance, Lowland Hum, Penny and Sparrow, the Lower Lights, the Walking Roots Band, Folk Hymnal, Steve Thorngate, Sam P. Bush, Found Wandering, Ordinary Time, and Garrett Viggers.

Gospel songs performed by artists like Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Isaac Cates, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Evelyn Simpson-Curenton, and Liz McComb also make an appearance, as do many African American spirituals, sung by Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Elizabeth Mitchell, and others. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is the most widely known from that repertoire.

Also from America is the eighteenth-century carol “O Sight of Anguish” by Samson Occom, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Mohegan nation. New England roots musician Tim Eriksen sings it a cappella on Every Sound Below, but in this outdoor video he plays it on bajo sexto:

(Oh how I wish Ericksen’s marvelous Star in the East album were on Spotify, which features thirteen more songs in this vein!)

The Carols for a Cure album series, made up of contributions from Broadway casts, adds some theatricality. The cast of Nine, for example, sings “Los Peces en el Río,” a traditional Spanish carol in which Mary goes about her daily tasks—combing her tangled hair, washing Jesus’s diapers—as the fish in the river swim excitedly toward the newborn Savior. It’s sung by Antonio Banderas.

(Related post: “The Christmas Songwriters Project”)

In addition to this and the twelfth-century “Friendly Beasts,” another song that focuses on the animal characters at the nativity is the punchy “A Stick, a Carrot, and a String” by mewithoutYou, which sounds like it belongs on the Juno soundtrack. It’s wonderfully quirky.

Of course the Christmas playlist includes tons of classics—“Joy to the World!,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Silent Night,” and so on—multiple renditions, in fact. (It’s too hard to choose just one!) There’s an upbeat swing arrangement of “O Holy Night,” but there’s also a more subdued, ethereal arrangement by Katie Melua, and several more besides. It’s fun to see how different artists interpret the same song.

The Irish folk rock band Rend Collective gives us a raucous arrangement of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” retaining some of the archaicisms in the original lyrics but rewriting verse 3. A competing team at One Way UK’s 2017 Puppet and Creative Ministry Festival in Rugby, Warwickshire, used this song as the basis of a super-entertaining puppet performance! This made me smile.

You may be wondering, “Where’s all the choral music?!” While I do enjoy that genre, especially at Christmas, I’ve decided to exclude such songs in this list (1) to prevent it from becoming too unwieldy and (2) because I have to do a lot more searching and comparison to find the best recordings. I hope to release a choral Christmas playlist in December 2021.

If you’re looking for Advent music, see “Advent: An Art & Theology Playlist.” For the Christmas playlist, click on the image below.

Christmas Playlist (art by Yasuo Ueno)

Merry Christmas, friends! May you rejoice in Christ with exceeding great joy, he who “comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Amen.

Cover art: Yasuo Ueno (Japanese, 1926–2005), A Multitude of Heavenly Hosts, 1986, natural pigments on silk

Take Your Burden to the Lord (Artful Devotion)

Rodin, Auguste_Fallen Caryatid with a Stone
Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917), Fallen Caryatid with a Stone, modeled 1881–82, enlarged 1911–17, Musée Rodin cast 1988. Bronze, 52 1/2 × 33 × 39 in. (133.4 × 83.8 × 99.1 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Cast your burden on the LORD,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.

—Psalm 55:22

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

—1 Peter 5:7

Whatever form our anxiety takes, it’s a burden that Sunday’s lectionary reading calls us to relinquish at the feet of God. (Note: To the assigned reading from 1 Peter, I’ve added a similar verse from Psalm 55.)

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SONG: “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There” by Charles A. Tindley, 1916 | Recorded by Washington Phillips on December 2, 1927, and released January 1928; reissued by Dust-to-Digital on Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, 2017

One of the founding fathers of American gospel music, Charles A. Tindley [previously] wrote “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There” in 1916. It started making the rounds in black churches, and gospel-blues artists and guitar evangelists began recording it for big-city record labels, who would send representatives around the country to collect and record “race music” to then press into 78s to market to African Americans.

One of the earliest recordings of “Burden” is by Washington Phillips (1880–1954), a singing farmer-preacher from Simsboro, East Texas; it’s one of eighteen sides he recorded for Columbia Records from 1927 to 1929. He sings it to his own “novelty accompaniment,” as Columbia credited it—a custom instrument he built by reconfiguring two fretless zithers, restringing them and giving them a unique tuning pattern. He played it with both hands and called it a Manzarene, according to a recently discovered Teague Chronicle article from 1907. Musicologists have marveled at the flowing, harp-like sounds his invention enabled and have been unable to reproduce it with any kind of exactness.

Washington Phillips
This photo of Phillips from his 1927 recording session in Dallas shows him holding two zithers that appear to be attached.

Phillips’ “Burden” has since been reissued by several labels, but the best-quality reissue is Dust-to-Digital’s from 2016. The sixteen-track CD comes with a small seventy-six-page hardcover containing photographs, news clippings, ads, recording contracts and other documents, lyrics, and biographical and instrumentation information by the world’s premier Phillips researcher, Michael Corcoran. The extensive liner notes open thus:

The mystery of Washington Phillips begins the first time you hear his sweetly-sung Christian blues, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from an instrument that sounds like a child’s music box. His music is a simple prayer, with the blessing in the asking, the singing, the playing. But his ethereal sound is also highly developed to the point of being almost psychedelic. Where did this strange and moving music come from?

Having interviewed former neighbors and living relatives in Freestone County and combed through archives, Corcoran corrects a lot of misinformation about Wash Phillips, some based on his being confused with his cousin of the same name, who died in a mental institution in 1938, and one persistent myth—that his instrument was a dolceola (a keyboard-activated board zither)—stemming from a misidentification in the liner notes of the Dutch label Agram’s 1984 compilation. I’m constantly impressed by what Dust-to-Digital puts out, and I can’t recommend this product enough.

Though Phillips’ is probably the best known, the song has many other covers as well, sometimes released under abbreviated titles like “Take Your Burden [or Burdens] to the Lord” or “Leave It There.” Blind Joe Taggart recorded the song in 1926. The late twenties through forties also saw recordings by Snowball and Sunshine, the Pace Jubilee Singers, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Roosevelt Graves, the Golden Gate Quartet, and others, each with their own distinctive interpretation.

The Blind Boys of Alabama recorded the song in 1974, and a much different version in 2013. It’s also part of the Gaither repertoire.

Lately I’ve been seeing an uptick of interest from indie-folk artists. Just last month Wilder Adkins released it as a single.

In 2015 the Dutch-based nonprofit The Influences filmed Phil Cook, a phenomenal guitarist, performing a similar rendition (it is one of two songs he chose to represent his musical influences):

Found Wandering also has a great version up on YouTube, with Sarah Comstock on vocals, accompanied by guitar and fiddle:

For a select list of other covers, click here.

Rodin, Auguste_Fallen Caryatid with a Stone (detail)
Photo: Victoria Emily Jones


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, cycle A, click here.