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Eliza Carthy & Jon Boden
Glad Christmas Comes
Hudson Records
Review by Lee Blackstone


cd cover “Here come I, Old Father Christmas, welcome or welcome not. I hope Old Father Christmas will never be forgot! Christmas comes but once a year – but, when it comes, it brings good cheer! Roast beef! Plum pudding! Strong ale, and minced pie! – And who likes that, any better than I?”

Every year, the holiday season can bank on a whole slew of newly released festive recordings that vie for your listening attention through the darkening winter months. Some albums and songs – new, or more likely new versions of old chestnuts -- may worm their way alongside your reliable celebratory favorites. I remember with glee hearing Robert J. Lurtsema chortle his way though those ‘Old Father Christmas’ lines above as part of the first Christmas Revels album: it felt ‘new’ and like theater drawing on old traditions that still tumbled behind the gloss of more commercialized Christmas pop fare. The Revels also opened up to me a world of U.K. folk songs whose antiquated pedigree felt like an alternative universe. Old Father Christmas was like an English ‘host with the most,’ the very personification of jollity and goodwill that beckoned you to indulge your heathen side and also shamelessly grow your paunch.

Folk icons Eliza Carthy and Jon Boden have thrown down the gauntlet in the Christmas stakes. Where some might see the lengthening shadow of the commodified Christmas season to be unseemly, Carthy and Boden respond with more Christmas, by which they mean more wassail and more cheer for these blighted times. It’s the message of Christmas that ultimately matters, and that message encourages us to be our best selves. And to sing. Across a generous sixteen tracks, they lay out a strong Christmas repertoire. They and some friends offer a contribution in terms of lyrics, music, and exploration of source materials.

The album sets forth appropriately by drinking healths from the “Ashen Bowl” which holds holiday wassail. “We are in the old time/The new time comes fast” Carthy notes, as she is joined over fiddle by Boden’s voice. Immediately one senses how well their voices mesh: Eliza has the deeper, richer tone of the two, and the contrast works beautifully. On the title song one gets to marvel at their voices as they perform an original tune and transform a John Clare poem into a new holiday offering. It’s evocative and fantastic in its execution.


Next up is “Beautiful Star,” written by R. Fisher Boyce in 1938. This song was suggested to the duo by the late Norma Waterson, and Carthy takes the lead with authority. Boden and guests Emily Portman and Tim Van Eyken add depth, but just listen to the way that Eliza catches her voice as she sings "Oh, beautiful star.” It’s a showstopping moment.

On “Winter Grace,” whose words and music come from Jean Richie. They sing the scene acappella and set its rich description of the winter night alight. “The old cow’s breath’s a frosty winde, and the moon along the fallow field doth silver shine.” The effect is timeless.


“King of the Birds” is a wren song of the season, it’s rumpty-tumpty melodeon line bringing along singers and listeners alike. Boden follows with his “The Good Doctor,” a song based on various mummers’ plays. Immediately one picks up on the “fa la la la” music, later made explicit in the singing. The song is also tremendous good fun, buoyed by wonderful brass lines. Plenty of allusions to Christmas traditions are set forth, from George’s battle with the Dragon to the chiming chorus of “Ring, Christmas bells.” It’s lovely, colorful, and fantastically joyous.

Such glimpses of frolicking ridiculousness are also echoed in “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas” (1953, John Rox), humorously described by Boden as a protest song about consumerism. It cuts some music hall capers, woth the melodeon giving way to a brass finish.


Naturally, there are plenty of familiar Christmas songs twinkling on display -- and all of their arrangements have been lovingly crafted. Carthy and Boden treat us to “Remember Oh Thou Man” (Thomas Ravenscroft, 1611), which harkens to carolers in the snow (as in Thomas Hardy’s novel Under The Greenwood Tree); and a regal version of “Mount Zion” (one of the versions of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”). “The Holly and the Ivy,” with its vivid nature imagery melded to Christian symbols, receives some great, swirling fiddling accompaniment. The Copper Family’s deep songbook is given a tip of the hat by “Shepherds Arise,” a song also preserved in Sheffield traditions. “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” always provides a lift to a Christmas program, and it does so here as Boden and Carthy surround themselves with guitar, fiddle, trumpet, and additional brass instruments.


Other plums in this pudding include Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan’s classic Pogues song “Fairytale of New York” - less boisterous than the original, but we’re here for the inevitable trading of barbs that occurs between Carthy and Boden. The lyrics have been re-fashioned to avoid offense, and the alterations work fine; there are even morris bells sounding in the distance.


And on the subject of bells, James Pierpoint’s “Jingle Bells” (1822) makes an appearance. The version here is a delightful carousel of doom set to a jaunty tune – a sleigh crashes and overturns, and in the end our protagonist falls butt-first in the snow to the delight of onlookers. Perhaps those verses faded from my memory; they certainly surprised me by reviving the ribaldry hiding in plain sight. And, apparently Eliza Carthy insisted that Christina Rossett’s “In The Bleak Midwinter” (1876) be on the album, with the brass music composed by Gustav Holst (1906). Eliza’s singing is positively exquisite and exceptional here, and I positively teared up by the emotional ending.

“Glad Christmas Comes” re-appears in a brass coda to the album, at which point we can safely say that a good time has been had by all. And that’s essential: the world is a forever mess, and charity and grace appear in short supply. Boden and Carthy have done their bit to even the scales with this remarkable holiday gift, best shared with others.

Find the artists online.
Eliza Carthy
Jon Boden

Further reading:
The Furrow Collective - We Know By The Moon
ØXN - Cyrm
The Rheingans Sisters - Bright Field

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