Joe Henry Presents a Christmas Playlist

Joe Henry, photographed by Daniel Wheeler.
Joe Henry, photographed by Daniel Wheeler.

I’ve wanted to do this for a long time now. Oh, how I love it when a plan comes together.

As I was growing up, my family watched holiday television specials that featured a variety of beloved artists performing favorite Christmas songs. I may not have the stuff to host a TV show, but I have website, and I’ve been blessed by some generous musicians who have agreed to participate in a Playlist party.

So grab your headphones.

This post is the first of several playlists I’ve requested from some of the musicians and writers I admire and enjoy most.

You’ll probably cheer for some of your familiar recordings, you’ll probably discover some new tracks. Feel free to take notes, listen to performances, and build your own holiday playlist to share with us in the Comments.

Our first Christmas Playlist Party host? Please welcome Grammy award-winning producer, poet, and musician Joe Henry, whose new album Invisible Hour is, at this writing, my favorite record of 2014 and the one I have played most often. In February, he’ll join the patron saint of this blog, Sam Phillips, for two shows at Largo at the Coronet — a concert dream I’ve longed to see fulfilled, and it’s happening too far away for me to get there. Argh!

[UPDATE: What’s more — I’ve just learned that today is Joe’s birthday. So raise a mug of morning joe to Joe!]

Okay, Joe — what Christmas recordings would you include in a playlist of your favorites?

JOE HENRY:

1.

“CRY OF A TINY BABE” – Bruce Cockburn

This song comes from the very first recording session that I ever attended as any kind of “producer” (other than my own). It was 1991, and, with this album, I had just begun my apprenticeship with T Bone Burnett.

T was away from the studio when Bruce and his crack band — which included Jim Keltner, Booker T., and Edgar Meyer, among others — began to play through this song for the first time; and my biggest contribution to the project was that I instructed the engineer to press “record” as they did so.

By the end of this long, languid, and emotional take, drummer Jim Keltner was streaming literal tears, as was I. And it was the only time they played it.

2.

“O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM”

It matters little to me, ultimately, who sings this song — and matters not at all in what language: the message of this song is perfectly contained in its sublime melody. But if my wife were asked in the isolation booth of a quiz show to identify my default allegiance, she would rightly say it lies with Sinatra.

3.

“I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS”

A weeper to be sure, originating as this song does from the years of the Second World War. As deftly as the best country song might, we aren’t really notified until the ultimate line that the singer will, in fact, not be home for the holidays (if ever at all), except in the loneliness of his dreams; but there is rich beauty nonetheless in the reverie of what matters — which, in this case, is the belief that somewhere, far from the extravagant violence of the foxhole, there is love and kinship waiting, right where and as he left it.

4.

“IF WE MAKE IT THROUGH DECEMBER” – Merle Haggard

Speaking of country songs, here is a song from one of the true masters of my lifetime. A blue-collar anthem to holding on; to celebrating what remains once the traditional observances have become untenable; a hymn to austerity, and a prayer that looks toward better times ahead; and a determination to hold ones breath through the rowdy celebrations of those more fortunate. In truth: it is not often that I turn to any Christmas music that wasn’t sung by either Frank, Bing, Dean, Ella, Nat, or Ray; but as with the selection from Bruce Cockburn above, this one from Merle transcends era distinctions and moves into the realm of the timeless.

5. & 6. “SILENT NIGHT”/”IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER” –

[Overstreet’s note: Joe Henry sings along with Sam Phillips on “Silent Night” on her Christmas EP Cold Dark Night, which subscribers to Sam’s “Long Play” music experience were lucky enough to enjoy. Maybe you can track it down somewhere. Unable to find that one online anywhere, I picked out Sinead O’Connor’s performance of “Silent Night” and the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, performing “In the Bleak Midwinter” for this playlist.]

Both of these songs meet me at the same lonesome station –both serving as deep mediations upon human frailty and fear, and the ways in which love and forgiveness –gratitude and service- override the terror of our mortality. In the case of each, the melody itself invites stillness and peace; and each offers up a perfect vignette: a moment of true human recognition and surrender.

The final verse of “In The Bleak Midwinter” is one that, personally, I have never fully uttered, when trying to sing along at, say, a midnight Christmas Eve service — so chokingly emotional do I find its affirmations of humility:

     What can I give thee, poor as I am?

     If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb;

     If I were a wise man, I would do my part—

     But what I have, I give thee: give thee my heart.

You don’t have to identify as a “Christian” (and I don’t, formally) to feel the resonance of this sentiment: that we each, within our humble means, have something of great value to offer.

Love to all,

Joe Henry

 

Thanks, Joe.

By the way, I’ll be publishing some long-overdue reflections on Invisible Hour soon. Watch for that. And stay tuned for more Christmas playlists here at Looking Closer in the next few weeks. I’ll let our upcoming guest hosts surprise you.

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  • sketchesbyboze

    I’m glad to see someone acknowledge the bleakness of Merle Haggard’s song – one of those rare holiday songs that recognizes how bleak the holidays can be.

  • Brian Sullivan

    Great list! I love the background to Cry of a Tiny Babe. Thanks. Looking forward to more playlists.