Folk Christmas Songs

Having as it does that wintry feel it is not all that surprising that folk music has produced plenty of fine Christmas material down through the years. For the most part they are quiet, introspective affairs that most suit those reflective Christmas moments. Like many other genres folk had its golden period in the 1960’s but it has proven to be a resilient style of music that continues to throw up great new artists and albums. And this translates to folk Christmas music which has produced quite a few contemporary greats. Kate Rusby’s ‘While Mortals Sleeps’ certainly fits that bill with her old world vocals and simple instrumentation lending gravitas to her renditions of old favourites ‘The Holly and The Ivy’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ as well as lesser known English carols such ‘Here We Come A-Wassailing’.

Sufjan Stevens is another example of an artist with folk leanings who has dedicated himself to redefining a whole host of Christmas favourites as well as creating just as many brand new classics. His 2 vast collections ‘Songs For Christmas’ and ‘Silver and Gold’ contain enough material to ensure a folk Christmas music marathon over the 12 days. Folk hero Bob Dylan is probably one of the unlikeliest artists you would have expected to produce a Christmas album but his ‘Christmas In The Heart’ was a genuine force of kindly yuletide tidings. His voice may be ragged nowadays but it is hard to not to fall for his application and verve on tracks like ‘Little Drummer Boy’.   

Several other recent folk Christmas songs are worth considering. Ron Sexsmith’s ‘Maybe This Christmas’ has already taken on the mantle of a modern Christmas classic as much for its genuine concern for what Christmas has become as for its shimmering daintiness. Laura Marling’s ‘Goodbye England’ is equally immense and such is her gift for lyrical storytelling that you can picture the snowy scenes as she gently plucks her chords. Canada’s Sarah McLachlan’s released a tender folk Christmas album in 2006 called ‘Wintersong’ and the title song orchestrated a classic snowswept landscape courtesy of a drifting piano riff.

It’d be impossible to appreciate folk Christmas music without looking back a little further for inspiration and there is much to gorge on. Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ has consistently gained fans since its emergence on an album (‘Blue’) of non-Christmas music in 1971. Sparse and melancholy ‘River’ is one of the most emotional Christmas songs ever written. Similarly cast adrift on a non-festive recording ‘Song For A Winter's Night’ by Gordon Lightfoot may have been recorded in 1967 but its story of true love still powerfully resonates many decades later.

Rarely mentioned but entirely spellbinding is Joan Baez’s album of Christmas material from 1966 called ‘Noël’. Full of folky renditions of traditional Christmas carols this is a masterpiece of understatedness. All the evidence you’ll ever need can be found on Baez's otherworldly version of ‘I Wonder As I Wander’. If ‘Noël’ proves too much for you then a little bit of John Denver’s earnest ‘Rocky Mountain Christmas’ from 1975 should prove the perfect antidote. Simple and refined it featured a Denver before the Muppets got hold of him and as such songs such as ‘Aspenglow’ are nothing if content to stick to the straight and narrow.  

Beautifully reverential but then set beside the grim stories from a news bulletin Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘7 O’Clock New/Silent Night’ becomes an odd footnote the history of great folk Christmas records. The song was the final track on the duo's 1967 album ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ and has proved a haunting presence ever since. ‘The Rebel Jesus’ by Jackson Browne is equally unusual, it came out the Chieftains ‘The Bells of Dublin’ LP, but it is a studied attempt at reclaiming our faith in today’s mixed up and less than faithful world. After such strangeness we’ll end with Harry Belafonte’s wholesome rendition of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, which is perhaps the best known track from his 1962 album ‘To Wish You a Merry Christmas’.

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