That was a question that Raymond, unbeknownst to me (because I am not a Facebook person) asked on Facebook (as he told me later) not too long ago. It is a fun question. We all grew up listening to our parents’ Christmas records; does one of those count as your favourite, or have you discovered something since childhood that you like better?
The one I grew up with was Joan Baez’s record called simply Noel, released in 1966. My dad was a big fan of Joan Baez, for her anti-war and human-rights stands. Noel is very different from most Christmas records. The musical arrangements, by Peter Schickele, of P.D.Q. Bach fame, are haunting: he writes in the liner notes of a later-reissue CD that the “idea was that, instead of the saccharine and/or pseudo-symphonic treatment usually applied to carols on albums featuring singing stars, the sound on Joan’s album would be reminiscent of the musical periods in which the various carols were written.”
The result is a record with a haunting and very old-sounding sound, like something out of 17th-century England (or France) – the sense you get is that the birth of this child is truly strange, mysterious, and beautiful.
So I bought the CD reissue, and played it for the first time this evening here at the Manse. To hear the first plainsong strains – and Joan’s pure, clear voice – on the opening song, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, after all those years, here at the Manse again – well, it gave me goosebumps.
I daresay that album hadn’t been heard at the Manse since Christmas 1974, the last Christmas my family lived here. As I listened to those beautiful, haunting songs I wondered: do they awake a memory in this old house that has seen, and heard, so much?