Today marks the beginning of Advent. Although this is technically the season for Advent music, rather than Christmas music, it’s been a long time since that distinction was recognized (if it ever really was). And so, today I’m offering up my new favorite Christmas album.
The Sacred Heart Singers were a group of young women - all but a few of them teens and younger girls - from the small town of Ewen, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula. They made a handful of records, and were popular enough to have made a number of appearances on local and regional TV, and, if the text on this album is to be believed, were internationally known, for a time. A friend of mine shared their first album with me, “Come Alive”, which has some wonderful moments, and this put me on the lookout for their other material, which brought me to the “Come Alive at Christmas” album.
As much as I enjoyed the first album, this Christmas album is even better. I adore the sound of children singing naturally (as opposed to Broadway, Pop, Classically or otherwise “trained” singing children), and the addition of the sweet acoustic instruments, simple, direct harmonies and great, timeless songs adds up to something very special.
But there’s something else, too. The accent heard in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a wonder to hear, with a lilt and rhythm that is unique and which I find hard to describe. But one feature that crops up in the singing here is a tendency to seemingly race through vowels in order to get to certain consonants, ending sounds which are then held onto for a longer period than is the case for most English speakers. This can be heard on many words ending in “M”, “N”, “R”, and particularly, “ING”. Heard here, sung by a large group, there a ringing, resonant sound to those words, and I find the effect magical, even sort of intoxicating in places. It’s heard on almost every track here and there, but most obviously in “Silver Bells”. This a song which I’ve never even liked, but here, all of those lovely "ING's" bring me back for repeated listenings.
The album starts of slowly, with an odd choice, a Perry Como song called “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S”, which I find to be one of the lesser tracks. But keep listening, because that’s followed by “O Come Little Children”, easily my favorite on the album – maybe my favorite “new to me” track that I’ve heard this year – and (except for a version of the fairly awful song “My Two Front Teeth”) the high quality remains for most of the remaining tracks.
This album fairly well defines “Guileless” for me, and that’s one of the best things I can say about an album, particularly a Christmas album. Maybe there’s something in the air up there – this album was made about an hour’s drive away from Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where another singularly guileless, even more magical album, “Musical Memories of Camp Bryn Afon” was created.
Incidentally, you can find a posting of the Sacred Heart Singers best song of all, a track from their first album titled “Once Upon Eternity”, posted at my friend’s blog here.
I hope you find some of the same joy in this record that I've experienced: