Yesterday Englewood Review of Books published my review of Somethin’ Special: A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection (Neworld Media, 2018). I’ve also created a video of one of the tracks on the album “There’s Still My Joy.”
Very few pop Christmas albums help us to celebrate incarnation, the central affirmation of Christianity, but I find in Somethin’ Special: A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection many songs that point in that direction and offer a most moving encouragement to reclaim that connection. This new full-length holiday CD released in early November presents the new, the traditional, and the disquietingly ordinary and says “Look in these stories and in these places. God is right before your eyes.”
Stookey, one third of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, took on a solo career as singer/guitarist /songwriter in the early 70s after the group began a seven-year leave of absence from each other. Since reuniting and performing with Peter and Mary until her death in 2009, he has written songs for 21 solo albums and continues to perform solo and with Peter Yarrow in concerts around the country. His songs are not just folk, but eclectic in content and style, and many of them speak of the Divine in metaphorical terms, central of which is Love with a capital L.
“A recollection can be a distant memory – suddenly recalled – or in this instance, a gathering of childhood stories, unique to the holidays,” Stookey states in his liner notes. “Some are highly personal, some are musical remembrances of Christmases in concert with Peter, Paul and Mary, but most of the songs reflect an evolving appreciation of the expression and the reason for the holiday: the birth of Christ.” Truly, he seems to be re-collecting carols, his own compositions (old and new), and others into a new appreciation of meaning of Christmas and the larger holiday season.
Many people want to divide life into the secular and the sacred. It’s a convenient tactic of church folk who protest any mention of social justice in their congregations. “You’re getting too political, pastor. Stick to spiritual things.” This notion gets press every December when some Christians step up on soap boxes about putting Christ back in to Christmas. Similarly the secular notion of Santa Claus usually ignores its lineage to Saint Nicholas, who was born to wealthy parents in the third century in what is now Turkey. His Christian devotion led him to spend his whole inheritance on attention to the poor and defenseless, particularly as a protector of children. His generosity and compassion led to the custom of gift-giving during the holidays.
With this recording Stookey is suggesting compatibility. Why not have both Santa Claus and nativity scenes? There’s a theological reason for having both Santa and Jesus in our year-end celebrations. After all, some scholars say the root of the word religion means to bind together or to connect–a meaning that is ironically obscured in our current cultural, political, and religious divide–and Christmas, more than any other part of the liturgical year, affirms the connection of heaven and earth, divine and human, spirit and matter.
The incarnation is the ultimate reason for rejoining that which has been broken asunder by misguided religiosity. This baby Jesus grew up to be a carpenter and a friend of the marginalized–including prostitutes, tax collectors, women, and those hated Samaritans. He healed the sick, played with children, and hung out with fisher folk. He concerned himself with practical parts of living–meals, friends, health, community, respect for others, shelter, cooperation, love, and bread and wine. Are these things not sacred?
Somethin’ Special celebrates the binding together of what our culture wants to divide into the secular and the sacred. Three of the songs about childhood are Stookey’s own compositions. In “For Christmas” a department store Santa Claus gains a new life after talking with the last child on Christmas Eve. In “Christmas Dinner” an orphan boy of the streets and a woman old enough to be his grandmother share “the happiest Christmas” in town. “Somethin’ Special,” the title song, is a recollection from Stookey’s own childhood when his creative parents gave him “the gift of patience, the gift of faith.” To this listener these reveal the sacred value of love and connection without mention of the baby Jesus.
In Stookey’s treatment of traditional carols, there is new appreciation of the sensory and the material as well as a bit of reframing. The sound of uilleann pipes that open “In the Bleak Midwinter” take us to the cold desolation of Scottish moors and make us wonder about the song’s metaphorical message for times such as these. Stookey adds lines to “Away in a Manger”: “Across a great desert three wise men they came / Seeking a king though they knew not his name / A heavenly light, bright shining and blest / Had led to the stable where Jesus did rest.” How often have I been too literal minded to see these visitors from the East as representative of those who know not Jesus’ name but are drawn to this sacred baby born in the most earthy of places, an animal stall? Another new verse shows forth the sacredness of the most ordinary acts in a household–comforting children, praying, and keeping watch over a cradle. Who can know the results of these faithful actions?
“Still My Joy”–written by Melissa Manchester, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Matthew Charles Rollings– is the sparking gem of the album, holding in tension joy and grief. I think of the treble range of a piano as silver and the sound of a cello as gold. It is keyboardist Michael McInnis’ genius to bring the two together. The piano is bright and hopeful and underlines the “still my JOY” and the cello is the gravitas, the honest facing of the inevitable losses that come the longer we live. It is the gold of wisdom standing in creative tension with the joy that makes the joy credible. Stookey sings the song with such emotional range, grace, and vulnerability that it becomes an invitation for listeners to enter its safe space to feel and hold together both grief and joy. What a gift!
Richard Rohr writes, “I believe our inability to recognize and love God in what is right in front of us has made us separate religion from our actual lives.” Stookey’s album encourages us to recognize God in what is right in front of us. Without saying so, it is about incarnation, the scandalous notion that in God came in a baby born in a stable and continues to dwell among us mere mortals.
God with us indeed!