Some people (cough cough Bethany Bylsma) don’t seem to appreciate the choice of this particular song. But I am enjoying dwelling with this through several versions, melodies, and artists.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells” in 1863. His second wife had passed away, his son had joined the Union Army against his wishes; peace was far from his experience.
For me, this song’s power (and therefore the essential piece that must be captured) comes in the embrace of opening one’s eyes to the lack of peace in our world, followed by a transition to Christian hope. It’s not an easy transition to live, or to interpret musically. Smoothing over the pain, or moving to easy hope, are not ultimately satisfying options for me.
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth, I said
For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.
So here we go with 16 diverse versions of this poetic Christmas Carol. Give a listen, share it around, and get your votes in by Wednesday at 5 pm PST.
#1 The Civil Wars This exquisite version was submitted by both Bethany Lee and Kelsey Hampton. For what I am looking for (as listed above), this nails it. The intricate, subtle harmonic changes in the heart of the song, combined with their passionate, expressive vocals make it an easy top seed.
#16 Johnny Cash Bethany Bylsma nominated this one. Cash is expressive at other times, but this one doesn’t seem to move with the song at all.
#8 Casting Crowns Jennifer Hanziel nominated this version. Alternate melodies abound on this carol, and this is one of the alternates.
#9 Sleeping at Last One of several Bethany Bylsma nominations, though she claims she doesn’t like the choice of this song…
#5 Branches I remember discovering this group on the very first Advent Caroling Madness. This version is nominated by Jennifer Perez. I had a difficult time seeding this one; at one point as low as 9, at another point as high as 3.
#12 The Carpenters Krissi Carson nominated this one, sharing that the Carpenters Christmas Album was a wonderful part of her growing up experience.
#4 Westminster Concert Bell Choir I mean, come on: what’s the title of the song? A bell choir has to get a good seed. But on my second listen through, I really was impressed with what the arrangement does with the despair and with the hope. It’s a good one.
#13 John Gorka This is, I believe, the first nomination from Jared Jones. I’m glad he sent it in-I was completely unfamiliar with this artist.
#6 Five Strings This, too, is an alternate tune, and it is quite intriguing. I found the tune and arrangement to evoke more of the hopeful side of this tune. Thanks to Dawn Reed for submitting!
#11 Found Wandering Robin Mohr nominated this local Philadelphia group. This is another I had difficulty seeding, and it fell to 11 primarily because of matchups.
#3 Echosmith I would be intrigued to hear this group arrange this today. The recording is from 2013, and they look quite young in the video…and there are some really nice pieces in this. I think with the maturity that I’m sure they have gained, it might be even better now. Thanks to Robin Mohr for this submission as well.
#14 Suzy Boggus & Chet Atkins Ronis Chapman is another new participant, with her first submission: thank you!
#7 Eclectic Christmas I may get in trouble for not giving my friends and son-in-law a #1 seed…but it primarily has to do with the fact that I appear to be the only person on the planet who does not like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. But this is a creative mash up by talented people. Submitted by Nate and Amy Macy.
#10 Slavic Chorale David Sherwood offers us this well done choir piece, using the same tune as the Casting Crowns version. It dropped to #10 because I originally was going to pit the versions against each other in the first round, but then that didn’t seem fair.
#2 The Opiate Mass This is haunting, shading toward the despair side all the way through. But, the context makes that understandable and also lends it such power. Martha Wood submitted this, and let us know that this was performed on the day of the shooting at Newtown Elementary.
#15 Sarah McLachlan We haven’t had much yelling this year (well, other than Wolves at the Gate), but this seed may do it. Robin Mohr and Bethany Bylsma nominated perennial entrant Sarah McLachlan, who infects me with as much passion as my dental floss.
There you are! Fire up your speakers and headphones, and make your votes! You have until Wednesday at 5 pm PST.