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Lucy Mercer

Lucy Mercer
Location
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Birthday
December 31
Bio
I cook, I write, I carpool. You may also find my words at A Cook and Her Books. Email acookandherbooks@gmail.com. Thanks for visiting!

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DECEMBER 14, 2010 8:00AM

My favorite Christmas carol: Betelehemu

Rate: 14 Flag

nativity

 

Christmas music is the mood-setter as we gear up for the holidays. I look forward each year to the familiar and funny, as well as the sacred and serious songs of the season. Before I tell you about my favorite song, I will tell you what I don't like:

Waking up the Monday before Thanksgiving to the strains of Kelly Clarkson's eardrum-shattering butchering of "Silent Night" streaming forth from the clock radio. I have nothing against the lovely and talented Ms. Clarkson, but respect the original intentions of the song - it's a hymn, intended for tender reflection and spare guitar accompaniment, not Wagnerian vocals and soaring orchestrations.

The next morning, I woke up to the I'm-convinced-there-is-a-Hell, Edward-Scissorhands-on-chalkboard torment of Madonna singing "Santa Baby." I have a fondness for Eartha Kitt's version of the song - sexy and silly and like embarrassing behavior at holiday parties, best indulged in once a year and forgotten for the remainder. Madonna, on the other hand, should stick with her day job of being Madonna and leave poor Eartha's fine work alone.

I slept in on Wednesday and changed the radio station to a Christian station that plays reasonable, sincere, reason-for-the-season Christmas fare, (as well they should.)

Lest you think I'm the Grinch of Christmas music, I have to say that I truly love Christmas and Christmas songs, both sacred and secular. Some of my dearest childhood memories are of turning out the lamps in the living room, plugging in the lights on the Christmas tree and singing along with Mitch Miller or Robert Shaw, the discs spinning on my parents' stereo. Mitch, with his goatee and Santa hat, was quite handy to have around because the album sleeve came with copies of the lyrics - knowing that the day would come when I would need to know all of the words to "Must be Santa," I diligently studied the words.

Here in Atlanta, the go-to radio station for Christmas music was the old Peach 94.9. Their highest ratings were from Thanksgiving to Christmas, when they played a divine and diverse selection of sacred and silly songs. From der Bingle's "White Christmas" to an enchanting version of "Toy Trains" by Nana Mouskouri, to the Centurymen's "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem," the selections were soothing and inspiring and responsible for neverending wells of Christmas cheer. The ratings boost didn't help the station, however, the station is now "The Bull," dispensing country music 24/7. (Love Garth and Tricia, just.not.that.much.)

If I had to pick one song that just makes my holiday, it would have to be  "Betelehemu," a Nigerian choral work arranged by Wendell Whalum, long-time director of the Morehouse Glee Club. (Morehouse is the historically black college in Atlanta, whose famous alumni include Martin Luther King, Jr. and Spike Lee). You may be familiar with the Morehouse Glee Club - they perform throughout the country. (If perhaps you're not, then you're in for a treat.

I first heard "Betelehemu" at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus' annual Christmas concert, the signature work and Christmas gift from the legendary Robert Shaw. That was a stage filled with as much musical talent as you'll ever find - the ASO, the chorus, the Morehouse men, and Robert Shaw, looking for all the world like a conductor should. Barrel-chested, dashing in his white tie and tails, turning toward the audience after the traditional opener, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," his face flushed from the lights and energy, shock of white hair falling over his brow, and quoting from the Gospels. The son of a preacher, with a preacher's stentorian tones, Shaw had his own pulpit and ministry, the pursuit of perfection in choral singing. The Atlanta Symphony chorus and the Morehouse men exemplified Shaw's ideals.

Midway through the Christmas program, the musicians and singers looked to stage left with expectation as the Morehouse Glee Club delivered its rendition of "Betelehemu." It starts out with traditional African percussion and near the end, a solo. Watching people experience Betelehemu for the first time is fascinating. Here you are in Symphony Hall, soaking up the sacred, expected songs from the Anglo-American catalog - First Noel's  and Fum Fum Fum and some a-wassailing and then the Morehouse men start up with drums and singing words in an unfamiliar language. It doesn't matter that I don't know the Nigerian language, I understand this song.

   
    "We are glad that we have a Father to trust.
    We are glad that we have a Father to rely upon
    Where was Jesus born?
    Where was He born?
    Bethlehem, the city of wonder.
    That is where the Father was born for sure.
    Praise, praise, praise be to Him.
    We thank thee, we thank Thee, we thank Thee for this day,
    Gracious Father.
    Praise, praise, praise be to Thee,
    Merciful Father."

( "Betelehemu"  (Olatunji, Via) - arr. Wendall Whalum)

 It's not too difficult to put into words what I like about this song. It's joy. From-the-tips-of-my-toes to the top of my head joy. Hearing "Betelehemu" seals my faith - the worldwide community of believers, past and present, who know the saving power of the love of God. The longing for a Savior and the thankfulness for answered prayers. It's significant that it's a choral work, performed by a group, not individuals, who have to work together to sing it right. It's not about the diva who can knock your socks off when she hits the high note.

 

I hope you like this clip - it's the Morehouse Glee Club performing "Betelehemu" at 1991's Kennedy Center Honors for Robert Shaw. It's nice to see Shaw's reaction to the performance. (Mr. Shaw died in January 1999, but the ASO Christmas program that he created is an Atlanta tradition, still performed each Christmas season.)

Please tell me your favorite Christmas songs, sacred or silly, I'd love to know. And may God bless you with inspiring music this Christmas.

Text and image © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Video clip is from Youtube. 

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I love Silent Night. hands down..
Loved this post..
HUGGGGGGGG
Lucy--if it were possible to rate this post 100 times I would. This is a glorious, soaring song of praise and wonder for the season. It's too bad that all the radio stations which incessantly repeat the Carpenters and Andy Williams and other tired versions of Christmas music don't latch on to this.
This is also what I have posted about the beauty of the male voice raised in harmony.
I would rate this right up there with the finest performances I have heard from the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir of gospel and Christmas music.
Thanks.
Linda: I love Silent Night, too. I sang it to her as a lullaby every night for a year. Thanks for reading!

Walter: Thank you so much for listening to the song & reading my story. I'm off to read your post now!
I'll Be Home for Christmas [Bing da man] makes me sappier than I already am.

Little Drummer Boy is humbling.

I absolutely adore listening to the angelic voices of the Crownover Middle School choir.
Lucy, this is amazing. Thanks for sharing this powerful music-- I am sure the energy in the room must be tremendous in a live performance. Merry Christmas!
Lucy,
I love this. African music is so powerful, so from the heart. Thank you. I think my favorite is "O Holy Night."
Oh I absolutely love that Nigerian Christmas song. Thank you for bringing it to our attention, Lucy this song really brings out the Joy that is supposed to be a part of the season but is too often lost.
Belinda: I love to hear children's choirs, too! And I'll be home for Christmas makes me homesick even when I'm home.

Linda: Being in the same room with the Morehouse Glee Club is an awesome experience. I'm glad you liked the music!

Janice: I love "O Holy Night." It's an Atlanta favorite from the lighting of the Rich's/Macy's Christmas tree - when the lady hits the high note, the lights turn on.

Torman: Thank you for reading and sharing in the JOY.
Great pick Lucy. This was a new one for me and I very much liked the percussion and the choir itself.

As for faves, well, traditional ones would include I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In, Carol of the Bells, Chestnuts Roasting By an Open Fire, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Do You Hear What I Hear (but only the Bing Crosby version).

I'll be posting a couple more off the beaten track favorites this weekend.
Abrawang: thanks for reading & listening. I like all your choices, too, especially the Bing's "Do You Hear What I Hear." I love "The Christmas Song," too, but remember too well my friends' childish mangling of the well-known lyric into "Jack Frost roasting on an open fire/chestnuts nipping at your nose."
Well, that's like ten friggin' thousand times better than Madonna's Santa Baby. I wish our local station that plays Christmas music from Thanksgiving 'til Christmas Day would expand their horizons and include something that spectacular!! Thank you so much for sharing that. I wouldn't have caught it otherwise.
Bell: Thanks for listening - if we ran the radio stations during Christmas, the music would be much better...
Rousing simplicity! Goes to show that a lot of spirit goes farther than silliness or celebrity. Although my favorite Christmas songs will always be traditional hymns (Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing particularly) I will always have a soft spot for Band Aid's 1984 "Don't They Know It's Christmas?"
Grace: Thanks for reading. I love the classics, too, and the Band Aid choice is excellent.
I used to play Little Drummer Boy on the piano every Christmas until my mom had to sell the piano. Recently, my niece recalled her favorite Xmases and recalled my playing. I was thrilled.
Thanks for the memory, Sheba, and thanks for reading. My daughter plays piano now and we hear a lot of "Feliz Navidad" around the house.
Thanks for this, Lucy. I cried when I heard Robert Shaw died, I loved classical music as a child because of him.
As for Christmas music, Silent Night and Little Drummer Boy both rank very high on my list, as well as Oh Holy Night and anything sung by Bing Crosby...and The Twelve Days of Christmas for the sheer joy of remembering singing with my kids and laughing as we tried to keep up.
Stunning clip of that gorgeous song...
Just Thinking: I love the Little Drummer Boy - that seems to be a song that hasn't been attacked by the divas. I still remember my mom calling me at home in January 1999 to tell me that Robert Shaw had died. We missed the Christmas program the month before, I had a new baby, and we thought we could would catch it in December 1999. I love your memories of Atlanta.
After re-watching and listening, I must come back to say how wonderful to see Mr. Shaw's reactions (although that doesn't seem like the best word, he's so engaged, like a child his face lights up) interspersed, the man loved music, did he not? ...and the glimpse of Gregory Hines in the audience...great clip.
Just thinking: Seeing Mr. Shaw's face when the curtain pulls up is great & I like the Gregory Hines glimpse, too. Another great who's no longer with us.
Thanks for sharing the prayers. I persona;lly like prayers and they work for me. Making rituals also is helpfull. Thanks for the Christmas Thoughts and story.
Lucy, thank you for this post and the video clip. I had not heard of Bethelemehu before. I can see why you like it. ~r