The folk music artist discovered her Christmas album in an anthology of song from 1953.
Some people grow up with an antipathy for Christmas music. Not Elizabeth Mitchell. As a kid, the children’s music artist liked the idea of a holiday that came with its own songs. “As a kid who loved to sing, I thought that was amazing,” she says. Today, she’s the sort of person who starts looking for Christmas music on the radio in November. “My daughter is the same; my husband definitely is not.”
This season, she released The Sounding Joy, her Christmas album, and it’s she wanted to make one since the beginning of her music career in 1998. She wasn’t sure what form it would take or when it would happen, but a stay in the hospital after a 2009 surgery led her to reconsider some of her plans including the things she’d put off, and Mitchell decided it was time for the Christmas album. Once out of the hospital, she went in the studio and sang some of holiday classics, but “I listened back and was not moved,” she says. “I’m not very good at making people want to go shopping.”
Mitchell had to find a way to turn her general affection for singing, music and Christmas into an actual album with point of view, and she found it in American Folk Songs for Christmas, a 1953 collection of songs anthologized by Ruth Crawford Seeger - mother to Mike and Peggy Seeger and stepmother to Pete Seeger. “What I do in a lot of my work is reach back in time and pull a thread forward,” Mitchell says, and the book was a treasure trove of songs, many of which had been forgotten. As she pored over them, she found a theme she could relate to.
“A lot of the songs in the book, there’s a thread of Mary and the baby, and the conclusion I came to is that the story of Christmas is the story of a child and the experience of the mother,” she says. It’s a theme that she likes to sing about, and it helped her make decisions about what songs to sing and how to sing them.
The Sounding Joy is a lovely album, one folk music fans can enjoy with or without children. Mitchell presents the songs as simply as possible, with just enough accompaniment to give the songs dimension and color. The spiritual “Oh, Mary and the Baby, Sweet Lamb” is performed as a call-and-response between Mitchell and children, with only clapping as accompaniment until the bridge, which introduces a brief thumb piano melody. The blues underpin much of the album including “January, February, and the Last Month of the Year,” a song The Staple Singers memorably recorded on their The 25th Day of December album from 1962. In keeping with the spirit of the season, Mitchell performs the album with her actual and musical family - husband Daniel Littleton, daughter Storey, and guests Peggy Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Amy Helm, Aoife O’Donovan, Gail Ann Dorsey, Larry Campbell, Dan Zanes, and John Sebastian.
The songbook isn’t in print, and Mitchell found it 10 years ago during the process of discovering the music of Mike and Peggy Seeger. She came to admire the breadth of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s selections and particularly her arrangements of the songs. “Her piano arrangements are so simple and so beautiful,” Mitchell says. Seeger clearly had the amateur pianist and singer in mind, but she didn’t sacrifice musicality. “She wanted anyone to have this experience of playing these songs and sharing these songs.”
One sticking point for Mitchell is the songs’ spiritual dimension. She didn’t want the album to be taken as a specifically and solely Christian one, but the album leans heavily on songs that involve Jesus and Mary. “It’s something I still ponder,” she says. Mitchell thinks more of the values and the stories told by the songs than of their specific theology.” The birth of a child story is universal, she says. “I think it’s okay to share that and acknowledge that. Christmas means different things. It can have a very spiritual component, but now in 2013 it can mean a day you give presents, stay warm, and celebrate with people.”