The Twelve Days of Christmas CD
By Marvin Payne
I, like you, am influenced by events that surround me. Here are the forces that will help shape what I have to share: The Prophet Jeremiah, with whom I spend Sunday mornings in the company of my excellent class of teenagers, the BYU-Utah game of recent memory, and the whirlwind creation of a Christmas CD.
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There is an ethical question permeating and festering and giving motion to this column. The content will orbit around my journal record of creating said CD. Usually when I give examples of journal-keeping approaches and techniques from my own history, the examples were written with no thought of sharing them precisely here. This time, I’ve known from the get-go that I’d share what I was writing.
Of course, if you were an ancient Israelite sitting at your computer screen, munching a fig and blissfully imagining Nebuchadnezzar to be a benign dictator with no particular desire to increase his administrative headaches by, say, destroying your city and taking all its surviving citizens into captivity, you might choose to rely on that mad prophet Jeremiah to arise like a mist in your mind (or a pop-up on your screen) and frame this question for you:
And they shall ask, didst thou make thy CD merely that thou mightest write thereof in the book of
Meridian, that peradventure thou mightest appear cool in the eyes of the people?
Further, that they might dash their idols of gold and silver and with the residue thereof purchase of thee thy handiwork online? In that day shall peace return to the valleys of Achor, Jezreel, Willamette, San Fernando, and the plains of www.marvinpayne.com.
Of course, in what is entirely acceptable philosophical imagery, we are dealing here with chickens and with eggs. A musical testimony is born and the bearer writes about it. The bearer writes about it and a musical testimony is born.
Six years ago in the very first Backstage Graffiti column we talked about how differently you might live your life if you knew someone was writing a book about it. And that people might actually read said book, if only, at the very least, angel people. All I’m doing here is knowing that somebody really will (I’m thinking mostly here about the editor ((something of an angel, I will admit)), who, of course, is paid to).
The journal record of the making of the CD at issue:
15 November 2006
This morning as Laurie and I sat calculating how to meet today’s drop-dead mortgage deadline, along with a few thousand dollars more that we need in order to stay afloat, Laurie said “Why not make a Christmas album?” It’s 6:45 in the evening now, and the really urgent bills are paid. Caitlin’s glasses are on the way (that was first), and tomorrow I’ll redeem my main guitar and start recording.
John and Amy Johnson have seen to it that a couple weeks from now I’ll have a sellable prototype in hand, and that the hand will not be stiff in death…
…It’s midnight. This afternoon I roughed out a mountain tune for Christina Rosetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I’ve loved this piece since I first heard it plagiarized for a prelude to Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” several years ago. (I came home from the performance eager to read it again in my Oxford Complete Works, but hey, it wasn’t there.) The image that arrested me was, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” The director thought Rosetti’s words could improve Shakespeare’s play. They can certainly improve my album.
After I played the kids to sleep I wrote a Joseph’s lullaby lyric to Turlough O’Carolan’s “Si Bheag, Si Mhor,” written in about 1720. Another account has it written about a quarter-century earlier, the blind harpist’s first tune. The two names are ranges of hills between which was fought a fierce and awful battle of, well, fairies. There are words, but no one appears to have translated them from Gaelic. I first (and last) heard the tune a dozen years ago when I recorded Tom and Gael Shults playing it.
16 November 2006
Began writing a song, “By the Virgin Born.”
17 November 2006
Finished the song, redeemed my guitar, and started recording.
20 November 2006
Wrote for television all day. The only attention the Christmas CD got was in playing the kids to sleep. They like “Lie Still,” the Joseph’s lullaby. It sticks in Laurie’s head, as well.
Little Jesus, sweet baby, my lady’s child,all Heaven on a straw bed,little lovely one, lie still, lie still, lie still awhile.
Lie still, lie still, rest your head.
Little stranger, you fell through the sky so wild,through angel gossamer wings.Little lonely one, lie still, lie still. You’re God’s own child.Lie still until Mother sings.You belong to the strong Father of Earth and stars.Shepherds alone know who you are – my lover’s son,but just her husband’s guest.Lie still, lie still. Sweet Heaven’s babylet your fair mother rest.You belong to the wronged and the deep sorrowing heart.You’ll go long in the deep dark and bring a songto all who pray and weep.Lie still, lie still. Sweet Jesus babyyou belong fast asleep.
The way this is shaping up lyrically, I think the CD should be called “By the Virgin Born.”
22 November 2006
Re-conceived an old song of mine for guitar – sounds completely different than it did in 1986. The bridge:What if every song the angels sang became a falling leaf,and every dream a snowfall, and every prayer belief?What if faith became an angel who spoke your name and smiled,and she smelled like hay and starlight?What if God became a child?
In the evening I began the tortuous task of untangling and reweaving for guitar Bach’s most popular harmonization of the Hassler tune “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” which we sing as “O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown,” and which Paul Simon sang as “An American Tune,” ignoring the fundamental fact that it’s in every way a German tune. Well, it’s going on the CD as a Christmas tune. The first verse:
Our Christ flew far to save us,from stars beyond our own –fell through the birth He gave us,the gate of blood and bone.And then, before the manger,the Savior, small and bare,looked up and, like a stranger,He saw His mother there.
Figured a way to marry the little guitar noodle I’ve been doing of “Silent Night” to a broad gospel version I’ve played live for years.
23 November 2006
Thanksgiving Day. All I could squeeze in on the album was digging up the chords to Jan Perry’s “Does He Remember It Now?” about the tiny baby who had built the universe. It’s a Scripture Scouts song and entirely hers, but she always generously credits me with the idea and even shares royalties from other recordings of the song.
24 November 2006
Second Thanksgiving at the home of Laurie’s nimble grampa, who turns 98 in a couple of days. All I could do was borrow my brother-in-law’s guitar and practice stumbling through the Bach.
In the evening I found a magical Madonna face by Leonardo da Vinci.
25 November 2006
Worked with the Leonardo. Pretty much all day. Morning, half-time and commercials and time-outs in the BYU-Utah game (holy moley, what a game – BYU by two in the last three seconds on a totally improvised pass play for a touchdown!), then through the evening until midnight getting it plastered all over my web site, cross-links to song lists and notes and even a prerelease sale, to be fulfilled on the eighth of December. Looks like I’m committed. I’d better get this thing recorded. Somehow I don’t think people will quite get the Christmas spirit if all I send them is the kick drum and snare tracks I’ve laid down so far.
28 November 2006
Finally something like a full day in the studio. Laid guitar and a very funky bass line on my driving Dylanesque tune “By the Virgin Born.” Built all of the Bleak Midwinter song, a pair of guitars, a bass, and a vocal. I may be close to a final mix, as well. Had to beg out of a play reading I’d been asked to attend, but they had plenty of others who could help. I never even went outside. I think it snowed.
29 November 2006
I only have the morning and evening today. Let’s see what happens. When I woke up, I was surprised by a feeling both familiar and rare – I was excited about the day’s work.
Got down a vocal, blues harmonica, and gospel organ tracks on the title song. I added some distant cascades of bell tree to “Midwinter,” and I think I may have a final mix on both. So we’re a fifth of the way there. It’s midnight.
30 November 2006
All day. Built from the ground up “Were You There When the Angels Sang?” This was recorded once before, twenty-five years ago when JAC Redford arranged it for baroque orchestra. But last Christmas I sang it for Suzanne Ledbetter on the guitar and she said Kenny Rogers ought to sing it. Okay with me, if he lives long enough. So I recorded it with guitar, bass, drums, gospel organ, harmonica, and tin whistle. The only tracks that weren’t played live from instruments that actually reside in the studio are the drums, which someone else recorded live, snare by snare and cymbal by cymbal, and kindly installed in my synthesizer. So I play them like you would play a piano – only slower.
1 December 2006
Finished “Lie Still.” Fixed some midnight guitar, sang it, and added tin whistle and finger cymbals. It took a long time to make my vocal sound like it wasn’t too high to sing comfortably, and to make the tin whistle sound as though I actually knew how to play it. It’s such a great tune, though, and the little mahogany Martin sang it well.
Tweaked the mixes of the other songs.
2 December 2006
Worked on Jan’s “Does He Remember It Now?” I’m treating it as a cowboy waltz. At least this time there’s no danger of it being sung by Boo Dog, which was always a terrifying prospect to Jan.
PM: premiered several of the songs at a ward Christmas party over in Highland. Felt good.
4 December 2006
With lots of Monday family stuff, I couldn’t record as long as I kind of needed to. I’m about a day and a half behind. Just added bass and guitars to Jan’s song, and filled out the waltz percussion. It’ll sound awfully simple for all this work. The two extra guitars are playing almost exactly what Saturday’s first guitar is playing, the “chuck, chuck” of the waltz’s defining “boom, chuck, chuck.” But they’re different guitars, and one is playing in the key of plain D, a second has a capo a couple of frets up the neck and is playing in C shaped chords, a third has a capo way up the neck and is playing high ringy G shaped chords. So it’ll still sound like only one guitar, but a guitar with about eighteen strings, played simply enough by a guy with left-hand fingers about fifteen inches long – at least nine of them.
5 December 2006
Wrapped “Does He Remember” and can say with some confidence that it ain’t Scripture Scouts anymore. Played most of these songs this evening in Watkins’ barn for a city Christmas party, then came home and attempted the Bach.
6 December 2006
Doubled the Bach guitar and de-tuned one of the tracks by a twentieth of a half step. It makes a nice jangly chorus effect. Spoke a verse and sang the rest, mostly because my voice just happened this morning to sound something like Darth Vader.
Built “Silent NIght” from the ground up. Maybe the nicest thing today was “What If God Became a Child,” just finger-picked guitar and vocal.
7 December 2006
Spent the first half of the day cutting and remixing, then laid into “The Holly and the Ivy.” Little John had asked if he could play with my basket of rhythm instruments. Steve Perry stopped by and among the items scattered on the living room floor he found a rackety wooden ratchet, a device I’d inherited but never used. He sort of dared me to use it, so I went him one better by using almost everything on the floor. Then a little icing of country electric guitar on top, and it’s not your mother’s “Holly and Ivy.” The kids like it a lot.
8 December 2006
Midnight. I’m theoretically done. I’ll be tweaking until the cows, however, theoretically come home. Spent the day cutting, pasting, cross fading, enhancing, and painting, mostly with music made for this project, a backdrop for my little story “No Room In the Inn.” It’ll close the CD. As grueling as these days have been, I’ll miss disappearing daily into the studio and coming out with songs. I guess as good a thing would be to play them and play them and play them. I love Baby Jesus.
End of Journal Part
Okay, so there were eighteen days of Christmas. Haven’t you always wished there were a half-dozen more?
One last thing from Ezekiel, a wonderful new epithet to hurl at people who grab away from you the present you risked life, limb, and spiritual and automotive safety to find at Toyz R Them. Are you ready for this? “Vile Fig.”
Oh, and how ’bout them Cougars?
Merry Christmas. Really.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
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