Cowboy musician praises 5 carols
Holiday songs deliver notes of history
Michael Martin Murphey is a Grammy nominee and a member of the Cowboy Hall of Fame, among other honors. The prolific writer, singer and musician brings his "Cowboy Christmas Show," now in its 19th year, to the Paramount Theatre tonight (7:30 p.m. $30-$50; www.austintheatre.org). The show is heavy on the holidays, of course, but also will include some of Murphey's other hits. We asked the Texas native to share some of his favorite holiday songs:
1. 'The Cowboys' Christmas Ball'
Since I'm a Texas-born cowboy, my absolute favorite Christmas song is "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball." Larry Chittenden, a young journalist for New York publications, was visiting Anson, Texas, in 1885 when he wrote a poem about a wild dance that he attended at the Morning Star Hotel. Chittenden's poem was widely published, making the Texas Cowboys' Christmas Ball world famous. Since 1885, the Ball missed a few years because of World War I, but a school teacher named Leonora Barrett revived the ball in 1934. President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited the ball dancers, callers and musicians to Washington, D.C., in 1938. This year, I play the 2011 77th Annual Re-Enactment of the Texas Cowboys' Christmas Ball in Anson.
2. 'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime' (Huron Carole)
This Christmas carol was written by the Rev. Jean de Brébeuf, a missionary priest to the Huron Indians, in Quebec in 1674. The Nativity is described in Indian imagery. It sounds like a Gregorian chant, which is a similar musical scale as the Indians used.
3. 'Joy to the World'
Isaac Watts wrote the words, and George Frideric Handel, author of "The Messiah," wrote the music. Lowell Mason is credited with arranging the piece from "The Messiah," but Methodists were singing it prior to 1833. I love the outdoor imagery of the song; the story of Christmas is pastoral in nature. The tradition is that Jesus is born in a manger, surrounded by farm animals. I play it on the banjo in my "Cowboy Christmas" show.
4. 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'
This is a carol of release of anger and forgiveness. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's son was wounded in war. Grief-stricken, Longfellow walked the streets on Christmas Eve, but the chiming bells at midnight overcame his bitterness. Longfellow's poem was set to a wonderful folklike melody by Jean Baptiste Calkin.
5. 'The First Noel'
I love this carol because it follows the story of Christmas in the form of a medieval mystery play. I also like the democratic message in this hymn; wealthy wise men and shepherds are included in the grace of the miracle, and encouraged to worship "in one accord."
- Sharon Chapman