Pete Seeger + Sholem Asch's "Nativity" = historical fiction at its delightfulest

(This blog post is an addendum to a series that Jeffrey Overstreet kindly invited us to contribute to on his website, Looking Closer, where Phaedra and I offered a top 6 Christmas Songs list. We feel luck to have joined such an impressive group of folks.)

My wife and I were sitting at the breakfast table last Saturday. We each had our cups of tea. Blythe and I were eating the pancakes we had just made, while listening to music through our Spotify account. Phaedra suggested we listen to an album by Pete Seeger, one of her favorite folk singers. We pushed play and waited for the music to play, presumably from his "Traditional Christmas Carols" album. Instead we heard his voice. At first we thought this was simply an introductory reflection to the album.

As it turned out, Seeger kept speaking and the story he told quickly captured our attention, so much so that we stayed at the table for another forty minutes, listening, drinking down the pot of tea, giving each other looks that said, “This is amazing.” We eventually learned that the story he recounted had been written by Sholem Asch. A prominent Yiddish author, in 1939 Asch wrote a long novel in Yiddish, The Nazarene, about the life of Jesus. As the Smithsonian Folkways web page puts it:

"A few years later, at Moe’s urging [Sholem's son and Folkways founder], Asch wrote a shorter work on the Nativity in English that would be of appropriate length for a phonograph record. The story remained unpublished and unrecorded until this Folkways release in 1963. Moe Asch was of the belief that the story should be recorded by 'someone with an affinity for art and the folk idiom, and with a deep sense of social understanding as well.' He decided on Pete Seeger (1919–2014), the legendary folksinger and activist. The recording also includes Seeger singing six Christmas songs. The liner notes provide background about the recording and Sholem Asch, and the text of the story."

It is a remarkable re-telling of the Nativity story. Historical fiction in the spirit of Frederick Buechner, Walter Wangerin, Jr, Anne Rice and David Maine, Asch's narrative finds its perfect match in Seeger's voice. If you have a moment, or an hour and six minutes to be more exact, take a moment this week and hear the story of Jesus, Joseph and Mary for the first time again. You can buy it here on ITunes or here or here or on your own Spotify account. The recording is very much worth a stocking stuffer and a late night listening session with family or friends.

Concert poster just for the fun of it.

A bonus Advent hymn: "Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers!"

Words: Ermuntert euch, ihr Frommen, Laurentius Laurenti (1660-1722), 1700.
Based on the Translation: by Sarah B. Findlater (1823-1907), Hymns from the Land of Luther, 1854.

I love the interplay of light and darkness, morning and night, peace and war, salvation and tragedy, hope and hope deferred seemingly indefinitely--faithful, in point of fact, to the actual nativity stories recorded in Luke and Matthew.

Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear.
The evening is advancing, and darker night is near.
The Bridegroom is arising, and soon He draweth nigh.
Up, pray, and watch, and wrestle: At midnight comes the cry.

See that your lamps are burning; replenish them with oil.
And wait for your salvation, the end of earthly toil.
The watchers on the mountain proclaim the Bridegroom near.
Go meet Him as He cometh, with alleluias clear.

O wise and holy virgins, now raise your voices higher,
Until in songs of triumph ye meet the angel choir.
The marriage feast is waiting, the gates wide open stand;
Rise up, ye heirs of glory, the Bridegroom is at hand.

Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear!
Arise, Thou sun so longed for, over this benighted sphere!
With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption that brings us unto Thee.
Ye saints, who here in patience your cross and sufferings bore,
Shall live and reign forever, when sorrow is no more.
Around the throne of glory the Lamb ye shall behold;
In triumph cast before Him your diadems of gold!


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