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.

Come, Weak and Wounded (Artful Devotion)

Kershisnik, Brian_Wounded Saint
Brian Kershisnik (American, 1962–), Wounded Saint, 2002. Oil on panel, 40 × 30 in.

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near . . .

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

—Joel 2:1, 12–13

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

—Psalm 51:8

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

—Psalm 51:17

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SONG: “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” | Words by Joseph Hart, 1759, with anonymous refrain, ca. 1811 | Music: American folk melody (RESTORATION), published in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, 1835 | Performed by Keith and Kristyn Getty, on The Greengrass Session: Six Hymns from the Old World and the New, 2014

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow’r.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.

Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.

The singing-songwriting duo Keith and Kristyn Getty [previously], who are married, are from Northern Ireland and split their time between there and Nashville, Tennessee, in the United States. In 2014 they recorded a medley of the (American) shape-note hymn “Come, Ye Sinners” with a traditional Irish reel tune known as MUSICAL PRIEST, blending the musics of their two homes. The song starts out at a slow, weary pace with spare violin accompaniment and then picks up with a brisk guitar and other strings, including a free-ranging fiddle. The dirge gives way to celebration—this is the movement of Lent.

“Come, Ye Sinners” appears in hymnals with slight variations in verses, sometimes with an additional two, but the text above is one of the most commonly used. The anonymous refrain (“I will arise . . .”), which makes an oblique reference to the parable of the prodigal son, was added to Hart’s text sometime in the nineteenth century; it is a “floating lyric” found in Southern hymnals as early as 1811.

Though I most associate the hymn with the tune RESTORATION (sometimes called ARISE), it has been set to several tunes over the years, both traditional and contemporary. These include BEACH SPRING, GREENVILLE (which uses a different refrain), and ones by Todd Agnew and Matthew S. Smith, to name a few.

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In his painting Wounded Saint, Brian Kershisnik [previously] shows us a young woman with downcast eyes and a bleeding gash in her right arm. This wound, a metaphor for the pain she carries inside, could be self-inflicted or inflicted by others or both, but either way, her child gently leads her forward toward healing, as two angels support her from behind. “Poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore,” the woman returns to her God, whose light emanates faintly from her head. In his arms, as the hymn says, “there are ten thousand charms”—ten thousand graces, ten thousand traits that fascinate, allure, delight . . . and make whole.

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I’ve just published a piece on the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) blog to mark Ash Wednesday tomorrow. It’s a short reflection on the interactive installation hash2ash by the Warsaw-based art collective panGenerator, which uses digital technology to turn selfies into a pile of ash. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” as the liturgy goes. Visit https://civa.org/civablog/remember-you-are-dust/ to read more.


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 Ash Wednesday, cycle A, click here.

Wrestling Jacob (Artful Devotion)

Jacob Wrestling by Walter Habdank
Woodcut of Jacob wrestling with God by Walter Habdank (German, 1930–2001), from the Habdank Bibel (Augsburg: Pattloch, 1995)

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

And he said to him, “What is your name?”

And he said, “Jacob.”

Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

—Genesis 32:22–31

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SONG: “Wrestling Jacob,” aka “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1742 | Traditional Scottish melody (CANDLER / BONNIE DOON), from The Hesperian Harp, 1848 | Performed by Tim Eriksen, on Soul of the January Hills, 2010

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell Thee who I am,
My misery and sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name,
Look on Thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

In vain Thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold!
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal
Thy new, unutterable Name?
Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell;
To know it now resolved I am;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

’Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue
Or touch the hollow of my thigh;
Though every sinew be unstrung,
Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;
Wrestling I will not let Thee go
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

What though my shrinking flesh complain,
And murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain,
When I am weak, then I am strong,
And when my all of strength shall fail,
I shall with the God-man prevail.

My strength is gone, my nature dies,
I sink beneath Thy weighty hand,
Faint to revive, and fall to rise;
I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand and will not let Thee go
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

My prayer hath power with God; the grace
Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see Thee face to face,
I see Thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

I know Thee, Savior, who Thou art.
Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;
Nor wilt Thou with the night depart.
But stay and love me to the end,
Thy mercies never shall remove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The Sun of righteousness on me
Hath rose with healing in His wings,
Withered my nature’s strength; from Thee
My soul its life and succor brings;
My help is all laid up above;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life’s short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness, I
On Thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from Thee to move:
Thy nature, and Thy name is Love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And as a bounding hart fly home,
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

In “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” Charles Wesley merges his own faith struggle with the story of Jacob’s literal wrestling with God at the Jabbok river. Holding on with a fierce resolve, the speaker demands to know the name and nature of the elusive being with whom he grapples, and midway through the poem, both are revealed to him as Love.

This story from Genesis has always compelled me—the strangeness of it, Jacob’s tenacity (“I will not let you go until you bless me!”), God’s naming act. I wrote about it in my very first contribution to ArtWay, back in January 2013, in relation to a painting of the subject by the Jewish artist Arthur Sussman. I see in it an invitation to wrestle with the unknown. If Jacob’s story can be taken as paradigmatic, then that means our persistence will be rewarded with divine revelation. In his striving with God, Jacob comes to see God truly, and he is forever changed.

Wesley brilliantly captures the essence of Jacob’s middle-of-the-night encounter in “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown.” I discovered the hymn years ago through Americana artist and musicologist Tim Eriksen’s moving a cappella rendition, which appears on his album Soul of the January Hills. (You can watch him singing it to a fiddle accompaniment at a Baroque church in Poland in this video.) Though it circulates with various tunes, Eriksen uses the one known as CANDLER, which originated in Scotland but first appeared in the US, in written form, in The Hesperian Harp in 1848, a shape-note tune book compiled by the Rev. Dr. William Hauser of Jefferson County, Georgia.

Hesperian Harp title page
Title page from the 1874 edition of The Hesperian Harp

I’m an amateur pianist and a church music leader, so when I encounter hymns I like, I try to find the four-part piano score to print, play, and archive. I found “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” with CANDLER as #386 in the United Methodist Hymnal. (As for online availability, see a similar hymn sheet here.) The two-page version with notation includes only four verses (stanzas 1, 2, 8, and 9 of Wesley’s original fourteen-stanza poem), but it is followed by a lyric page, #387, that reproduces Wesley’s full text. A note follows:

John Wesley ended his obituary tribute to his brother Charles at the Methodist Conference in 1788: “His least praise was his talent for poetry: although Dr. [Isaac] Watts did not scruple to say that ‘that single poem, Wrestling Jacob, was worth all the verses he himself had written.’”

For more on this hymn, see the “History of Hymns” article from the UMC’s Discipleship Ministries, and the outline by Rodney Sones from the 2008 symposium on Charles Wesley at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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To visually illuminate Genesis 32:22–31, I’ve chosen a woodcut by the late Walter Habdank. It is one of eighty interpretive woodcuts he made (some black-and-white, some color) for the Habdank Bibel, an illustrated German-language Bible published in 1995. His works are technically and exegetically skillful. Here the “unknown traveler” is a shadowy figure whose hands on Jacob’s head and back seem gently placed rather than combative. It almost seems as if the two are embracing.

The image recalls the scene of Isaac bestowing blessing on his son, a blessing Jacob “stole” from his slightly elder twin brother, Esau, from whom he is now on the run. Habdank links the two episodes to emphasize that ultimate blessing, ultimate validation, come from God, who condescends to engage our grappling and who names us. God never does tell Jacob his name, but Jacob eventually recognizes who he is, as he exclaims afterward, “I have seen God face to face!” And he commemorates the momentous occasion by naming the place Peniel, “the face of God.” Our struggles, too, afford us the opportunity to encounter God—to experience through our weakness and our brokenness, as Charles Wesley would say, a deep realization of “pure, universal Love.”


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 Proper 24, cycle C, click here.