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

God, Swing Down Low (Artful Devotion)

Johnson, William H._Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
William H. Johnson (American, 1901–1970), Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, ca. 1944. Oil on paperboard, 28 5/8 × 26 1/2 in. (72.6 × 67.2 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

And as [Elijah and Elisha] still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.

—2 Kings 2:11–12a

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SONGS: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” attributed to Wallace Willis, ca. 1840; “Swing Down, Chariot,” author unknown, 19th century

Most Negro spirituals are of unknown authorship, but one of the best loved, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” was, according to several accounts, written by Wallace Willis, the black slave of a Choctaw Indian who had been forced out west into what is now Oklahoma. Uncle Wallace, as he was known, was hired out part-time by his master to Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boys’ school, and this is one of the songs he sang to entertain the students. It became popular among them, and during the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ inaugural tour in 1871, the academy’s superintendent, Alexander Reid, shared the song with the all-black group. They had never heard of it but added it to their repertoire, performing it on concert stages throughout the US, along with other slave songs. It was one of twelve songs that their successor, the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, chose to record for the first time in 1909, further cementing its longevity.

In 2002 the Library of Congress added this historic recording to the United States National Recording Registry, to be preserved for future generations. The accompanying essay by Toni P. Anderson recounts, in addition to Uncle Wallace’s story, an alternate origin account that says “Swing Low” was the creation of Sarah Hannah Sheppard, a southern slave who had set out to drown herself and her daughter in the Cumberland River, until an elderly slave woman intervened, urging her to instead “let de chariot of de Lord swing low”—rescue would come, she prophesied. And for Sarah and her little Ella, it soon did.

In one sense, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is a plea for death: come and carry me over, God. “Home” is heaven, the promised land, just “over Jordan,” and the chariot refers to the divine vehicle that swept down to take Elijah there. In another sense, “home” could signify an earthly place outside the bounds of slavery, a place of relative safety and liberation and reunion with family—such as the North, just over the Ohio River. A clandestine “chariot” was in operation during the antebellum period, run by Harriet Tubman and a network of others (a “band of angels”), who transported slaves up to freedom, and this is the chariot to which the unnamed prophet of Sarah Hannah Sheppard’s story refers.

The song is often performed slowly, solemnly, as a weary surrender to death—as in this bluesy version by contemporary gospel singer Robert Robinson:

But it can also be inflected differently—with joyful anticipation and celebration. Such is the musical interpretation of The Lower Lights:

“In biblical tradition,” writes Old Testament scholar Iain W. Provan,

both chariotry and fire have strong associations with God’s self-disclosure. Both images come together in the most common natural form of divine appearing (“theophany”) in the OT: the thunderstorm—the storm cloud representing the divine chariot or throne (Ezek. 1; Hab. 3:8) and the fiery lightning bolts representing the divine weapons (Ps. 18:14; Hab. 3:11). [ESV Study Bible, p. 648]

Tim Mackie of The Bible Project calls the eccentric theophanic vehicle of Ezekiel 1 the “God mobile.” It’s God’s glory on the move. And it was probably what (or at least similar to what) Elisha witnessed when his predecessor, Elijah, was whisked away into the heavens. It may also be what the prophet Habakkuk had in mind when he wrote about God’s “chariot of salvation” that flashes forth lightning (Hab. 3:8, 11).

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is sometimes sung in medley with “Swing Down, Chariot” (variant title: “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot”), a fast-paced spiritual popularized by the Golden Gate Quartet in the 1940s. See, for example, this clip from the 2003 movie The Fighting Temptations, featuring Beyoncé:

This clip from Elvis’s movie The Trouble with Girls (1969) is also a lot of fun:

“Swing Down, Chariot” references Ezekiel’s vision of the God mobile, humorously nicknaming the prophet Zeke. It has him chancing upon an angel repairing a chariot wheel in the middle of a field. Having never seen such a vehicle, he approaches it, runs his hand over the exterior. The angel offers him a ride, which he gladly accepts. It’s a bumpy one, but Zeke doesn’t mind; “he just wanted to lay down his heavy load.”

Listening to these two spirituals side by side can help us make connections between Bible passages, as we see God’s fiery chariot present not only at Elijah’s ascension but also at Ezekiel’s call to the office of prophet. When mapped onto the context of enslavement, the chariot’s meaning is made real and intensified, a symbol of hope, release, freedom, of God’s wild and transporting glory.

As previously mentioned, the Negro spirituals were multivalent. To some, the chariot was this-worldly, effecting a passage to the northern states where slaveholders held reduced power. To others, to beckon the chariot meant to beckon death, to initiate a departure to the otherworld. The chariot songs held both meanings to their early singers, marking the tension between the slave’s will to live, to survive trauma, and his or her desire to be with God in the flesh, the ultimate freedom.

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William H. Johnson (1901–1970) is one of my favorite artists—I wrote about him in stations 3 and 13 of the Stations of the Cross audio tour at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and in my review of Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art.

In his painting Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, a two-wheeled horse-drawn car sweeps in from the upper left, fiery orange and red and filled with stars. Eleven angels in brightly colored dresses and anklet socks hover above, one of them waving hello to the aged man on the opposite side of the river, who runs to catch his ride. His arms are stretched out wide, ready to embrace his new home.

This is probably the best artistic representation of death in the Christian tradition that I know of. It’s glorious and sweet and evocative. The old man’s body is just on the verge of release from its pains, and I feel it. His heaviness is already giving way to lightness, to nimbleness. I feel the joy that awaits him across the river, which the yellow flowers seem to anticipate (they vibrate!), and I sense the community of friends that the thin, magenta-winged beings will be escorting him to. God’s presence, the sun’s orb, glows intensely, the same deep orange as the chariot’s exterior. That’s the glory into which the man is heading.

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There are so many wonderful renditions of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” What’s your favorite?


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 8, cycle C, click here.

Light of Knowledge, Glory (Artful Devotion)

Golden Edges by Michael Cook
Michael Cook (British, 1966–), Golden Edges. Acrylic on handmade paper, 58 × 56 cm. For sale (click on image to contact artist).

Second Corinthians 4:3–6, two translations:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (ESV)

If our Message is obscure to anyone, it’s not because we’re holding back in any way. No, it’s because these other people are looking or going the wrong way and refuse to give it serious attention. All they have eyes for is the fashionable god of darkness. They think he can give them what they want, and that they won’t have to bother believing a Truth they can’t see. They’re stone-blind to the dayspring of brightness of the Message that shines with Christ, who gives us the best picture of God we’ll ever get. (The Message)

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SONG: “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams | Performed by the Lower Lights, on The Lower Lights: A Hymn Revival, Volume 2 (2012)


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 Sixth Sunday of Epiphany (Transfiguration Sunday), cycle B, click here.

Seek (Artful Devotion)

The Believer by Ernst Barlach
Ernst Barlach (German, 1870–1938), The Believer (detail), 1934. Oak wood, 110 × 22 × 12 cm. Part of “The Frieze of the Listeners,” 1930–1935. Barlach Museum, Hamburg, Germany. Click on the image for commentary.

Seek the LORD and his strength;
seek his presence continually!

—Psalm 105:4

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SONG: “The Seeker” by Dolly Parton | Performed by the Lower Lights, on Old Time Religion (2016)

 


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 20, cycle A, click here.