Revamp Your Christmas Playlist with These Unsung American Carols

Smithsonian Folkways’ “The Sounding Joy” features traditional Christmas tunes sung by folk legends Peggy Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Joan Osborne and more

Elizabeth Mitchell’s new album
Elizabeth Mitchell’s new album for Smithsonian Folkways, The Sounding Joy, features new renditions of traditional American Christmas carols. Cover artwork by Brian Selznick

Elizabeth Mitchell’s The Sounding Joy, released by Smithsonian Folkways for this holiday season, features new recordings of traditional American carols rescued from obscurity by the late Ruth Crawford Seeger (Pete Seeger’s stepmother) in her 1953 songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas. These simple devotionals evoke, as Ruth Seeger put it, the “old-time American Christmas. . .not of Santa Claus and tinseled trees but of homespun worship and festivity.”

“That’s what we did in our house,” says Ruth’s daughter, Peggy Seeger, who is featured on the album, along with Joan Osborne and Natalie Merchant. We spoke with Peggy about her contribution to the recording as well as her memories of her mother and Christmastime.

Which tracks did you record on The Sounding Joy?

I was asked to do “Christmas in the Morning,” and I chose to do “Mother’s Child” because it was one that I sing a lot in concerts and I absolutely love the tune. But I didn’t care for the original words, “a child of god,” so I “I’m a mother’s child,” which any religion can sing.

So it was important to you that these songs appeal to all faiths?

Oh, yes, absolutely, definitely.

How did it feel to return to these songs?

I love them. The collection is very interesting because my mother was the daughter of a Methodist minister, and she was pretty atheistic. My father was a combination of an agnostic and an atheist. And I’m very surprised that so many of the songs mention God and the Lord. These are terms that I kind of tried to avoid. Now that I live in England, which is very multicultural, I avoid them even more than I would in the United States.

My mother had a real ear for picking songs. She got an awful lot of these, most of them off of the Library of Congress recordings. She brought home these 16-inch aluminum records and listened to them with a thorn needle—I’m talking about the mid-1940s, early ’50s, and the only way you could listen to those records was with a thorn needle because a steel needle would ruin the tracks. It was our job, the children’s job, to keep the needle sharp using a sparkler. You’d put the needle into a little clamp and then you whizzed a wheel around it that put sandpaper on it, and that sharpened it again.

We heard these songs in the house as was transcribing them, from a very early age. Grew up with them. I know them all. I always loved accompaniments. They’re not easy to play, actually. To play and sing these songs with her accompaniments needs a lot of concentration. It’s not just ump-chump-chump-ump-chump-chump, and it’s not just chords with the left hand. There’s a lot of contrapuntal countermelody going on there.

Why are these songs still relevant? What can modern audiences gain from this recording?

They have choruses that a lot of people can sing. A lot of repeated words. And for many people now, religious or not religious, Christmas is a time to get together. Having some new songs to sing at Christmas is a very nice idea. . . . Many of songs sprang out of people singing together. That’s why there’s so much repetition. Often you have to repeat it for people to learn it and catch up with it, and for them to be able to feel themselves singing together, feel the edges of the room, as it were.

Do you celebrate Christmas?

Not anymore. . . . I’ve kind of lost interest in Christmas, with the horrifying commercialization. I don’t want to go into the stores anymore at Christmastime. I don’t want to hear all of the Christmas songs which you hear over and over ’til you are sick of them. . . .

The best Christmas I ever had was when I was about 7. It was a sad time for some people because there was an epidemic of polio in Washington, D.C, so we didn’t go into town to get presents. We stayed home and made presents for each other in the house. My brother, who was 9, got a little carpentry set before Christmas so he could make little cradles for our dolls. My mother taught me how to crochet and I crocheted things for my sisters’ dolls. My mother loved Christmas. She adored it.

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