When I was little, Christmas with Conniff, the 1959 LP by the Ray Conniff Singers, was the sound of Christmas. Each year, all through the late Sixties and early Seventies, we put it on the stereo while we were decorating the tree. I haven't heard it in years, but I'm sure that the first sprightly strains of "Jingle Bells" would put me right back in the living room of that house in Jacksonville, New York, where I lived through second grade—the prime Christmas years. Christmas with Conniff is definitely the best Christmas CD I don't currently own.
In my current Christmas music collection, the retro element is represented by two very fine CDs: Michael Bublé's EP from a few years back, Let It Snow, and my eccentric favorite, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. It's a compilation of freshly recorded Christmas tracks and outtakes from past Tull albums, and the flavor in general is reminiscent of Tull at the high point of their four decade career–the late-Seventies era of Minstrel in the Gallery, Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses. Some of the tracks are jazzed-up acoustic versions of popular carols; others, like "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow," sound like vintage Tull originals. Undead Ian Anderson still fronts the band with his flute and his unmistakable voice, and nine-hundred year old Martin Barre still shows off impressive chops on the guitars.
My most recent addition to the Christmas CD collection is A Cotswold Christmas, by the Abbey School Choir, Tewkesbury. I picked it up at the abbey shop on my first visit to my favorite English parish church, Tewkesbury Abbey. It's a very English set of Christmas music, beginning with the obligatory "Once in Royal David's City" in the David Willcocks arrangement. But the best Christmas CD in my current collection is An American Christmas, a 1993 release on Erato by the Boston Camerata under the direction of Joel Cohen. The disc features sacred harp tunes, folk hymns like "Wayfaring Stranger," early American hymns by the likes of William Billings, and later nineteenth-century revival hymns like "Jesus the Light of the World." While the Ray Conniff Singers perfectly capture the perky sound of Christmas in the late Fifties and Sixties, this CD captures the sound of a much older and more austere America—it's beautiful, haunting, and surprising.
My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .
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