Last Monday, December 21st, was the Winter Solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, a day which is also known as Midwinter and the Shortest Day. Briefly, to quote Wikipedia, the Solstice is ‘an astronomical phenomenon marking the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. It occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun.’ For the past two years I have posted some songs to celebrate the day but this year, as it fell in the midst of my Advent Calendar, I thought it might have been overload to do that again. Instead, I thought I would share some of those songs again as a way to bring back my Tuesday Tunes series, with a few others which are about winter, rather than the Solstice: a kind of natural season thing. In all, there will be eight songs: a real bumper edition!
My interest in the Solstice is its significance in a cultural and spiritual sense. Apparently this goes back as far as Neolithic times, when it was seen as the most propitious time for planting crops and mating animals. This time of year is important in many cultures, dating back long before it was appropriated by Christian faiths as ‘Christmas.’ The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a twelve-day “midwinter” (winter solstice) holiday called Yule, amongst many names. Many modern Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath and the Yule log are directly descended from ancient Yule customs. The underlying theme is how important this time of year is in the natural world, as a time representing rebirth and the beginning of more fruitful seasons.
I thought I’d begin with some examples of Solstice tunes, and then widen things out a bit. The first is from a guy based in Brighton, here in the UK, known as Damh The Bard:
There’s a warmth to his voice which I find appealing: his words give a very good explanation of what the pagan midwinter season is about, and draw the comparison with Christian beliefs. An interesting song.
This is far from just being a British thing, though. I have also found an Australian pagan band called Spiral Dance, who played gigs here with Damh The Bard in 2017: small world, eh? This is from their 2006 album The Quickening:
Again, there is a real warmth to the voice of the lead singer, Adrienne Pigott, which makes the music feel very welcoming.
Moving across the pond to the US, there is this one from Denise Jordan Finley:
That is from an album called Solstice. According to her bio Denise is very much involved with the church, so I think it would be wrong to describe her as ‘pagan,’ but this illustrates well for me how inter-related these apparently different sets of beliefs actually are, and how the importance of the winter season is reflected in different approaches. Denise’s voice is a thing of beauty, putting me in mind of Jacqui McShee, of Pentangle – in my eyes, that is high praise!
The last pagan/Solstice song for today is by another band previously unknown to me: Ravens. Try as I might, I can find nothing about them. There are several other bands with the same name, including an early version of the Kinks before they hit the big time, but none that I can see as having released anything like this song. One of the comments on YouTube is from Catt Kingsgrave, who apparently wrote the song. I have found several references to her as an author, but again the trail towards the song dried up. If anyone knows more about her, please do tell! This is very much in the folk tradition, and has some pleasant harmonies which I think round off this section rather nicely.
To match the four Solstice songs, I’m now moving on to four songs which reflect winter, but without any religious/faith connections. Firstly, one of my favourites, which has a very dark video:
You may well know that one from the Pentatonix cover version which, in an act of mass criminality, has more than four times the number of YouTube views. Like everything Pentatonix do, it is well sung and staged, but totally lacking in heart and soul. And their video was made in the open air in summer sunshine, with no empathy for the meaning of the song at all! If you listen to the lyrics you’ll hear that this is about the death of innocence in youth, with winter representing the loss, and the Fleet Foxes’ own video is much more in keeping with this theme. The song is from the band’s eponymous debut album, released in 2008, which reached #36 in the US and #3 here in the UK. This song was also a #77 UK chart entry. Mind you, having slated the Pentatonix version I feel it is my public duty to warn you to stay away from the Kim Wilde cover – I think ‘laughably poor’ would be a kind description for it.
My second winter song is also lovely, but in a different way:
Being a folkie at heart I’ve always liked Gordon Lightfoot’s music, and this is a beautiful little song about being kept apart from the one he loves by the winter snow. The song was originally on his album The Way I Feel, released in 1967, and a re-recorded version was included on the 1974 compilation Gord’s Gold. The first album didn’t chart, even in his native Canada, but the second reached #8 there and #34 in the US. Wikipedia doesn’t give any details of a UK chart placing, but as the album was certified silver for 60k sales some four years after release I’m guessing it was a steady seller. Apart from that he has never enjoyed huge chart success here, with just a few fairly minor singles hits: his best here was If You Could Read My Mind, which got to #30. His records have sold millions around the world though, so I guess it’s our loss!
At this time of year those of you in Britain will probably have been thinking of Chris Rea on his seemingly interminable drive home, but he has other songs for winter, such as this one:
It’s a simple love song, and I think it’s rather sweet. There doesn’t appear to be an official video for it but there are several fan versions: this is the one I prefer, as it is very well made and fits the song beautifully. This was on Chris Rea’s 1991 album Auberge, which was a UK #1 and enjoyed high chart placings in several European countries but, in keeping with his usual poor performance over there, only got to #176 in the US. It was also the lead track on an EP version here, which reached #27 in the singles chart.
My final winter song is a real beauty, a collaborative effort from Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson:
I think that is stunning, and the video that someone has made for it is lovely, too. This was very much a one-off: the two co-wrote the song, which was released in 2008 on a compilation album of various female singers called The Hotel Cafe Presents Winter Songs. The album also features songs from KT Tunstall, Brandi Carlile and Colbie Caillat, amongst others. There is even a version of White Christmas by Katy Perry, if that was what was missing from your life. As a single, this song reached #2 in Ireland and #97 in Canada, and got to #18 on the US Billboard Bubbling Under listings, but didn’t chart anywhere else, as far as I can tell. It also doesn’t appear on an album by either singer, either. That made me wonder if they didn’t really get on, but after a bit of research I’ve found that they are friends and regularly attend each other’s shows. So maybe another collaboration might be possible – it’s long overdue!
‘I still believe in summer days.
The seasons always change
And life will find a way.’
Thats all for today, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my meander through some less well-known music. I’ll be back on New Year’s Day, and you can be sure that you’ll know at least one of my New Year songs (he said, hopefully).