For Olga, singing the Christmas blues is just the other side of the coin.
When asked about Christmas music, blues singer Olga is quick to enthuse about Kay Martin and Her Body Guards' "I Want a Casting Couch for Christmas," a naughty Christmas song from the 1962 album, I Know What He Wants for Christmas … But I Don't Know How to Wrap It. When it came time to record Christmas music, Olga's choices were less risqué. On North Mississippi Christmas, her four-song EP available for download from iTunes, Amazon and her own website, she performs smart, tasteful versions of Christmas carols, each adapted to the acoustic North Mississippi blues style. That proved to be the challenge.
"I was looking for lyrics that would be workable in a North Mississippi blues setting," Olga says. "I'm not sure how I'd make 'Hark, the Herald Angels Sing' work. Blues phrasing is usually pretty straight ahead and there aren't too many words. 'Deck the Halls' has a lot of words, so that was kind of amazing that that was able to get crammed into this really pretty song."
She is not by nature a Christmas music person, she says, and recorded her tracks to provide an alternative to the forced jollity that is prevalent in so much Christmas music. "I thought it would be good to come up with version of Christmas songs for people like me, who want something different and don't want to hear 'Jingle Bell Rock' a million times." When she remembered that her friend Jessie Mae Hemphill had a recorded a Christmas song called "Merry Christmas, Pretty Baby," she became more comfortable with the idea.
Her version of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" is one of the EP's more audacious moments. For it, she took a musical idea she couldn't find words for and matched it with the Christmas classic. "That's just a straight-up poem; it's not even a song," she says. Her version is intimate as she sing-speaks the words to her own melody, complete with a chorus she added to help it work structurally.
She has considered writing her own Christmas songs, but the process of transforming the traditional favorites into songs that make sense for her involves so many creative decisions that writing her own seemed unnecessary. "I just came out with a version of 'Silent Night' that will be on volume two, and it's dark and sinister because it's a straight-up blues," Olga says. "If you look at the words, there's kind of a traumatic thing happening, so why wouldn't it be? I'm rephrasing it and getting rid of some stuff to make it fit in this style, and I'm thinking about doing that with some other ones. Traditional blues artists took verses from other people's songs and made up their own songs from them. What I'm doing is similar to that."
She also envisions a fife and drum version of "Jingle Bells" in her future, and while these sound radical on paper, the results so far have a core reverence for the song and the music. Nothing on North Mississippi Christmas mocks the holiday, its traditions or its music.
"The blues and the gospel's the same thing; the only difference is the subject matter," she says. "It's really not any different if I sang a blues version of 'Just a Closer Walk with Thee' or 'I'll Fly Away.' It's the same coin."
Though the two sides are closely related, Olga's very clear on her relationship to the songs. "I'm thinking about them as the blues."
North Mississippi Christmas is part of a gift package of holiday CDs that one lucky My Spilt Milk reader will win. The package will include The Eastern Sea's First Christmas, The Polyphonic Spree's Holidaydream, Holidays Rule, Tracey Thorn's Tinsel and Lights, A Charlie Brown Christmas and more. To enter to win, subscribe on the home page to "Condensed Milk," My Spilt Milk's weekly email newsletter. If you're already a subscriber, you're already entered. Contest closes December 20 at 7 p.m. CST.