In February 1852, John Sullivan Dwight, a transcendentalist and graduate of Harvard Divinity School, decided to start a music magazine. In a pamphlet outlining his ideas, he wrote that his journal would cover the developments of “the Musical Movement in our country, of the growing love of deep and genuine music, of the growing consciousness that music…is intimately connected with Man’s truest life and destiny.”
Dwight’s Journal of Music was launched in the following month and under Dwight’s direction was published until 1881, cementing his reputation as one of the first great American music critics. But his most enduring legacy is probably his 1855 translation of “Cantique de Noël,” a French Christmas carol composed by Adolphe Adam. Dwight called his version “O Holy Night.”
100 years later, on April 6, 1956, Nat King Cole was physically attacked while on stage, performing for a white-only audience in Birmingham, Alabama. Four men, shouting “Let’s go get that coon!,” ran down the aisle and jumped on Cole, knocking him off of his piano bench. Even though plainclothes police offers stopped the attack before much harm was done, Cole stopped the show. “I just came here to entertain you,” he said. “I thought that was what you wanted. I was born here.” The next night, Cole resumed his tour, mostly in Jim Crow-segregated venues, to much backlash from African American activists, including the NAACP.
It’s hard to not hear traces of that history in Cole’s rendition of “O Holy Night,” recorded for his 1960 album The Magic of Christmas and later repackaged on the compilation The Christmas Song (1962). Cole deleivers the song with the kind of solemnity that someone like Bing Crosby (who also had a popular version) could only dream of, which fits perfectly with the song’s main argument, that the joy of the season is so great because the world itself is so terrible: “A thrill of hope / the weary world rejoices.” Cole’s version channels that weariness in his delivery of the first verse, which makes the breakout high note in chorus (“deee-viiiiiiiiine!”) that much more powerful and uplifting.
Significantly, the 1855 version of the song carries specific political and racial overtones, as Dwight was an ardent abolitionist. The rarely sung third verse, which Cole doesn’t include in his rendition, includes the following lines: “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother / And in His name all oppression shall cease.” I’m not sure if the omission was a political one in 1960, or simply the decision of the arrangers; popular versions of the song during that period only included the first verse. In recent years, though, the inclusion of this verse has been resuscitated, though perhaps depoliticized—it was sung on national television by Josh Groban at the annual White House tree lighting ceremony in 2002.
No matter what your feelings are on Christmas (and its songs), or your ethical foundations more generally—religious, political or otherwise—it’s hard to look around right now and not feel that “long lay the world, in sin and error pining.” As I was writing this, I saw video of peaceful student protestors being pepper sprayed by campus police, and then the unapologetic response of the administration. I’m not particularly interested in asking (let alone answering) what specific role music, recorded or live, plays in moments like this. First of all, what moment isn’t like this? And second of all, as guitarist Louisa Black once told me, in a cultural war, everything artists do registers on one side of the divide or the other. Maybe simply going out to support the artists we love, in basements or in ballrooms, is in and of itself a political act. Maybe not.
One way that music and activism are made explicit is in the long tradition of the benefit show, of which there are plenty this holiday season. One of them is at Gabe’s on Dec. 23, where Euforquestra and Dave Zollo will play to benefit the Johnson County Crisis Center’s Food Bank program. That’s the beginning and end of live music shows that I’m going to talk about this month, but hopefully the information bubbles on these two pages can point you in some helpful directions, as will other sections of this mag.
I hope you’ll forgive, as you so often do, dear reader, the historical and personal tangents of this column. But, fear not, this is the last one of them that you’ll ever read. Starting next month my colleague A.C. Hawley will take over this space, though I plan to still contribute to Little Village in other capacities. Looking back on the last few years of this gig, I really can’t express enough thanks to the promoters, the venues and their employees, the musicians and the fans who make Iowa City such a uniquely vibrant and supportive place for live music. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these columns as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. I’ll see you at the shows.