At a loading dock this week, I was blasting one of my "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" discs (I've got about 50 different versions of the song) and another driver inquired, "What the fuck is that -- Christmas is over!"
But the spirit remains. For me and the merry gentlemen, any day can be Christmas. Agnostic me will sing out "Christ our Savior was born upon this day" and feel my being transported skyward to... well, at least the top of my van. Here are my favorite versions:
1) Chuck Leavell (What's in That Bag? 1998)
So you're walking through snowy woods on a winter night and you see lit candles here and there on the ground. You hear music. You come to a small clearing ablaze with thousands of candles and there is the great Chuck Leavell, formerly of the Allman Brothers, sometimes of the Rolling Stones, formerly of Chuck Leavell, the great Chuck Leavell sitting alone at a 30 foot grand in the snow and he's powerful, free, inspired, but he's not playing for you or even himself -- he's playing for the Great Mystery. My all-time favorite. Turn it up all the way.
2) Gypsy Soul (Sacred, 1998)
Multi-instrumentalist husband Roman Morykit lays down a little bluesy, lot jazzy acoustic delight and every sound out of vocalist wife Cilette Swann's mouth is perfection.
3) Yellowjackets (Peace Round -- A Christmas Celebration, 2004)
Saxman Bob Mintzer, pianist Russ Ferrante, drummer Marcus Baylor and bassist Jimmy Haslip show their chops and give their props in the most free-flowing engrossing jazz ensemble investigation of the merry gentlemen.
4) Nancy Wilson (A Nancy Wilson Christmas, 2001)
The underclass of the 1300s -- just about everybody back then -- couldn't get down with somber church music, so they invented carols which were sung and danced to year-round. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was sung on London street corners at least as far back as the 1500s. Five hundred years later Nancy Wilson gave us this sexy version.
A digression... As many of you know, there's a bitter schism in the world of Christmas caroling concerning where to put the comma in the song. As with most issues, the controversy is between the idiots and the smart people. The correct placing of the comma is: "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" (not: "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen") because in olden days "rest" meant "keep." The gents were advised to be merry, not rest. A red-state reading of Nancy Wilson's outstanding horn-heavy version would say: "Sit your asses (and oxen and sheepen) down, merry pardners, and take a load off." A blue-stater might say: "Gentlemen, get ready for the wisest hottest comforting and joy of your lives."
5) Eric Loy (Counterpoint Guitar Solos, 1999)
Way under-known self-taught guitarzan, aggressive, percussive, uninhibited, fun, joyous -- Loy puts the "merry" in this sweet swinging take. See Loy play live, with his harp guitar (two necks, three holes, 24 strings), and pick your jaw up off the floor.
6) Philadelphia Brass Ensemble (A Festival of Carols in Brass, 1986)
First issued in 1967 (but seemingly forever in the aether), this is the real deal, the version imprinted on us when we children were first dragged around on cold December nights to go "shopping" and "visiting." Effortlessly bringing tears to the eyes and shivers to the spine, this brief take (1:07) conjures up the best of the season: the cold huddled masses, the absent dead, love lost. The theme song for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Only three more months to go!
7) Crash Test Dummies (Jingle All the Way, 2002)
Rocker Brad Roberts' basso hilarious vocal unexpectedly gives way to fab flute and jazz. Totally enjoyable.
8) MercyMe (The Christmas Sessions, 2005)
The Christian rockers' photo on the album cover tells the tale: eyes peering out between toboggan hats and scarves across their mouths -- tough-sledding Christian insurgents! (Like Bruce Cockburn, I'm wondering where the rocket launchers are... or something like that.) A bonafide over-the-top warchestra with pulverizing drums, a choir and frighteningly earnest singing. Music to smite Shiites (Sunni or later) and steal hydrocarbons by. We (USA) rock -- you (world) roll (over).
Briefly: people of goodwill everywhere can agree to hate the kudzu of smooth jazz, but do check out Johnny Kudzuseed's (Russ Freeman) salsa version (Holiday, 1995). David Grisman doesn't have the exclusive bluegrass franchise (see also Christmas Grass Too, 2004) but he has done two superlative bluejass versions (DGQ-20, 1996 and David Grisman's Acoustic Christmas, 1991). Speaking of grass, have a listen to A Most Excellent Reggae Christmas, 2005. (Jah rest ye mellow, gentlemon?)
published 1/28/2006 at counterpunch.org