Saturday, December 11, 2010

Songs for Christmas: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

This carol is based on the poem “Christmas Bells,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote the poem in 1863 in the aftermath of the news that his son, a lieutenant in the American Civil War, had been wounded in battle. Longfellow had lost his wife two years before in an accidental fire. Thus the poem was written during a time of national crisis and personal loss. I can remember hearing this carol sung in church when I was a teenager. I suppose it was partly that I was growing from a childhood view into an adult view of Christmas, but I remember being impressed by the admission of doubt and despair over the hate and wrong in the world at a time when one wants to celebrate peace and hope.

The carol has been set to a number of tunes. I tried to find one with the hymn tune (WALTHAM) that I was familiar with, but could not find that version. Harry Belafonte does a sensitive rendition of the song set to a 1950s tune written by Johnny Marks (better known for writing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer).


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