Noel Paul Stookey's "Christmas Dinner"
In his liner notes of his new Christmas album Somethin’ Special: A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection, folk legend Noel Paul Stookey calls it “a recollection of special memories.”
A recollection, he writes, “can be a distant memory--suddenly recalled--or in this instance, a gathering of childhood stories, unique to the holidays.” Some recollections on the album are highly personal, he adds, others are musical remembrances of Christmas concerts with his classic folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, but most reflect his “evolving appreciation of the expression and the reason for the holiday: the birth of Christ.”
“Something happens the older you get,” says the insightful Stookey. “You recognize stages of involvement with special things like the holidays, whether it’s through the eyes of your children or grandkids or spouse or significant other. You measure the extent of things that remind you of something you went through yourself.”
He thinks specifically of his five-year-old granddaughter.
“She hasn’t put in a request for a bicycle yet—but she will. It’s a human’s first glimpse of personal freedom, transportation-wise: When I was growing up, my mom would say, ‘Just be home for dinner,’ and I’d ride all over my Dorsey, Maryland, neighborhood, even when they were building Friendship Airport [now Baltimore/Washington International Airport], and get back for dinner.”
On lead track “(I Want My Daddy) For Christmas,” then, he put in car horns and street sounds at the beginning of the song, which concerns a child’s Christmas Eve wish for her father--as expressed to a drunken downtown department store Santa.
“That’s what Christmas Eve in the city meant,” recalls Stookey, noting, “I know Santa Claus doesn’t have as rapt an audience as he once had, but I don’t care: It’s a piece of history--even though I’m beginning to feel slightly paranoid, because my daughter told me, ‘You’re so friggin’ old-school!’ The song is a drama about a drunk Santa who gets miraculously cured by the plea of a young girl on his lap—which seems more Hollywood than realistic. But my daughter’s a psychotherapist, and she said, ‘You’re wrong, Dad. That’s exactly what some people need as a trigger.’ So I felt validated.”
Peter, Paul and Mary fans may recognize “A’Soalin’ Fantasia,” as it’s an instrumental interpretation of the Christmas tune “A'Soalin’” on Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1963 second album Moving (which also included their signature songs “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and “This Land is Your Land”).
“I felt lonely a third of the way through, but I wasn’t going to sing all the parts or overdub myself and sacrifice authenticity, so I turned it over to the keyboard player [Michael McInnis] and said, ‘Make something wonderful with it’--and he sure did: He brought in Peter [Yarrow’s ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’] vocal part [from the original] and played it instrumentally.”
But the song that “blows me away,” says Stookey, is “There’s Still My Joy,” which was written by Melissa Manchester, Beth Nielsen-Chapman and Matthew Charles Rollings.
“I heard it by the Indigo Girls and had to record it,” he says. “Readers who don’t appreciate poetry are surprised by how words have power unto themselves—even if they don’t seem to make linear sense, they still have emotional impact. This song is like that: ‘I took my tree down to the shore….’ I mean, what has that got to do with love, forgiveness or amazing grace? Yet in this song, it does.”
Stookey, who lives in Blue Hill, Maine, also singles out the album-closing “Last Night/Auld Lang Syne,” which offers a fresh take on the traditional New Year’s Eve sentiment.
“Many communities have some sort of annual get-together on New Year’s Eve,” he says. “Ours is called ‘Last Night!,’ and the last few years I’ve been part of it. And while I’m aware that singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in a heartfelt way is important, being that I’m kind of a let’s-make-it-more-complicated folksinger, I thought, ‘There’s a countermelody here somewhere—I bet I could write one and give it a different spin.’”
So Stookey did just that. Specifically, he wrote an opening verse for “Auld Lang Syne” that not only fits perfectly, but allows him to split the New Year’s Eve audience in Blue Hill in two--one half singing the “Last Night” part, the other the “Auld Lang Syne.”
“Then we switch parts, and there’s a sense of bidding farewell to last year and greeting the new year with a feeling of hopefulness and community,” says Stookey, who also includes a new version of “Oh Come Emmanuel” on Somethin’ Special.
“I originally sang it a cappella with a chorus on our Peter, Paul and Mary Holiday Concert PBS special in 1988, and in the process of reconfiguring it for this recording, realized there were other Christmas standards and hymns that I’ve always appreciated but never quite felt had the authenticity that folk music brings when you revisit them.”
So for Stookey’s take on “Away in a Manger,” he added new lyrics (“...and so, like the angels on that starry night, comfort the children with a sweet lullaby/And pray for the peace only love can provide to stay by this cradle till morning is nigh…”) that more fully depict the setting--and its implications--in order to better “serve its purpose as a sweet lullaby [that is] comforting for children.”
Likewise, Stookey modified the early 20th Century carol “Bleak Midwinter,” here paring it down to two verses—the first and second-to-last.
“The opening verse sets a wintry stage, while in the last verse—in my version—Mary worships her beloved Jesus with a kiss,” says Stookey. “Lots of people talk about Christ as the human form of God, but to me, this underlines the humanity of Mary’s connection to her son.”
Additionally, his version shows that a kiss, ”which we sometimes throw away conceptually, and sometimes literally, as in ‘throwing’ or ’blowing a kiss’” can be considered ”an act of worship that is so moving to me that I would change [‘Bleak Midwinter’] to a two-verse song.”
The other traditional song on the album, “Holly and the Ivy,” is a prime example of Stookey’s stated goal of “authenticating the spirit of the Christmas Holidays.”
“In a sense, it’s folk music’s gift--and responsibility--to bring music of the past into the present,” he maintains. “In the case of ‘Holly and the Ivy,’ I’ve always loved the melody, but it’s usually done in choral versions that feel very stiff and upper-lipped, and I wanted to give it some reality.”
Specifically, Stookey reduced the repetition of the chorus, particularly its reference to “the running of the deer.”
“I wondered, ‘Why does the song sound so repetitive?’ It‘s because the ‘running of the deer’ section is repeated after each four-line verse—which tells an aspect of the holly tree and how it relates to Christ and his birth and life. But we don’t have to hear about the deer every four lines! So I made a chord modulation in the bridge—where we sing about the deer, but only that one time. Once we understand the deer--from the first hearing--it’s not worth repeating!”
Still, Stookey acknowledges his “audaciousness” in toying with tradition.
“It’s like, ‘Why would anybody write two new verses to ‘America the Beautiful’—that weren’t, of course, about the indigenous people or immigrants or slaves?” he wonders. “But folk music says that that’s not sufficient. It’s that same spirit of bringing a contemporary connection to traditional music.”
With Somethin’ Special: A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection, that spirit extends to the album’s quilted cover artwork, and two videos for “Christmas Dinner”--one an interactive “360” version from the recording session.
“It is my hope that this mix of the familiar and new will now become a part of your ‘recollection’ as well,” concludes Stookey.
Somethin' Special 360