It’s fitting that we should begin Christmas Eve with a rendition of ‘Silent Night,’ for it was the song that was sung by British, French and German soldiers during the Christmas Truce that was referred to in yesterday’s post. It was the only Christmas song they knew that had been translated into all three languages, having originated as a German carol (‘Stille Nacht’) from the pen of Austrian school teacher Franz Xaver Gruber (music) and priest Joseph Mohr (lyrics).
It’s interesting to note that the original, besides being German, differed from the modern in that it was intended as a mid-tempo dance tune rather than the slow-paced lullaby that it has become. First performed in 1818, the song was a fast success and it spread quickly through the various churches of Europe, eventually making its way to America and its first English translation in 1859. More or less everybody is aware of the “standard version” so I’ll push right ahead and highlight artists who’ve put their own unique spin on the track.
First up, we have Enya. Ireland has been a recurrent figure in this series, but for once I have a reason other than familiarity for focusing on a song, as the former Clannad singer’s recording is ample demonstration of the song’s inherent flexibility: the original can be sung in at least 44 different languages with very little lost in the way of meaning.
By contrast, Simon & Garfunkel’s 1966 recording involves a radical rethink of the song’s very meaning. The familar refrain is set as the backdrop to a news bulletin reporting the death of Lenny Bruce, street riots and casualties from the Vietnam War – a radical political statement, even for mainstream 1960s society. Stylistically, the choice of song fits right in with the duo’s folky, harmony-led pop, which makes the political element stand out yet more prominently.
If Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Silent Night/7 O’Clock News’ was a radical rethink, then Tom Waits’ ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ is an entirely new thought process. It’s a common technique of Waits’ to bookend his boozy blues-jazz ballads with carols and lullabies, but rarely has it been more poignant (and genuinely funny at times) as it does on this car crash anthem, from his 1978 album Blue Valentine.