While listening to some Christmas music this afternoon, at least partly hoping for inspiration to strike for today’s roots Christmas song, I placed Bruce Cockburn’s 1993 album Christmas into the player. The album begins with a brief guitar instrumental rendition of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” which is referred to by its Latin title, “Adeste Fidelis.”
I like Bruce Cockburn, have long admired his music and his humanitarian nature, but I can’t claim to ever been a real ‘fan’ of his. I have a few albums, a couple compact discs, and assorted cassettes here and there; I seldom pull them off the shelf or search through boxes to locate them, however. I was surprised to hear his voice accompanying a hardware store commercial this autumn, but it did inspire me to listen a bit to early recordings of Cockburn.
Christmas is a beautifully constructed Christmas album. The songs are spiritual in focus, played softly and gently- the type of album that suits a darkened room lit by a fireplace with snow falling past the window. There are several glorious performances within its hour running time, among them “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clean,” and “Down in Yon Forest,” a song that I don’t believe I had previously encountered. The album features Colin Linden, Richard Bell, Hugh Marsh, and other Ontario-based notables.
The highlight of the album for me is Cockburn’s interpretation of the Canadian song, “The Huron Carol (Jesus Aratonna).” For those unfamiliar with “The Huron Carol,” a Google search will tell you all you need to know, but the high points are that it was written in the 17th century by a Jesuit missionary, is considered Canada’s first Christmas hymn, and places the nativity within a woodland Canadian setting that would most likely be best appreciated by the First Nations people the missionaries were attempting to convert. A sample lyric: “Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found, a ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round.”
What is especially impressive with Cockburn’s version of “Jesus Aratonna” is that he sings it entirely in the language of the Huron. Having heard the song performed a dozen different ways by a similar number of English-speaking vocalists including school children and pop singers, this was my first exposure to the song in the language in which Father Jean de Brébeuf composed the lyric. Hugh Marsh’s violin work is stellar, providing a foil to Cockburn’s voice, which sounds a little awkward but entirely appropriate. It is a truly beautiful recording. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_gwCmXKWhw
However, that isn’t the rendition I wish to feature today. Today’s Roots Song of Christmas is instead the version of the song that has, over the past couple decades, become the signature song of actor and vocalist Tom Jackson. His “The Huron Carol” is, for me, the one by which all others should be measured.
Jackson is a recognized celebrity in Canada, having starred in any number of productions perhaps most notably North of 60. He has also criss-crossed the country performing fundraising shows benefiting food banks and the like under the Huron Carole banner and has received numerous official accolades including being named an Officer of the Order of Canada…whatever that is. Jackson is most commonly referred to as Métis, born on a Saskatchewan reserve in the late 40’s, and has a solid resume of acting experiences and, I’ve learned, is chancellor of Trent University.
It takes but one listen to his interpretation of “The Huron Carol” to feel that he has ruined the song for any other lesser vocalist. Over an instrumental background both sparse and lush, Jackson unhurriedly relates the tale of Christ’s birth. Listen to the way he manipulates ‘beaver pelt’ and holds onto ‘in excelsis gloria’ to understand more fully what I mean: his is a resonant voice that one can’t duplicate.
There are a few Jackson interpretations available on YouTube. The version of the song I most appreciate is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_cmnxep67k and another, in my opinion, inferior take at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZECOM00AH8. The iTunes version is, I believe, the first.
I own a couple Jackson albums, long out of print I believe, but neither contains “The Huron Carol.” His No Regrets album has been a favourite for nearly twenty years and his song “Humble Me” is stellar; co-written with Tim Thorney and Erica Ehm (yes, that Erica Ehm) and featuring Jerry Douglas on slide, the song should be a Canadian standard. Regrettably, it isn’t and I couldn’t locate it online. Still, both of these albums (the second being That Side of the Window) are worth searching second hand stores in the hope of locating a copy.
Today’s non-roots Christmas song is Bing and Bowie’s take of “Little Drummer Boy;” I remember watching the Crosby special the first time it aired in 1977 because my parents thought the sun shone out of his arse. Little did we know…still, a timeless juxtaposition quite ahead of its time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DiXjbI3kRus. I recall being quite fascinated that the singer I was just beginning to appreciate, Bowie, courtesy “Space Oddity” and ChangesOneBowie, was on the television and my parents were listening. I acquired the 45 sometime later, and am looking at that familiar picture sleeve as I type. It is just a good performance.
Thanks for spending time at Fervor Coulee. Donald