Album Review: The Christmas Spirit – Johnny Cash

Posted: March 28, 2013 in 1960's, 4/5, Country, Gospel, Johnny Cash
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Christmas SpiritI write this review with Easter on the horizon. While other Johnny Cash albums might be more appropriate right now (The Gospel Road, The Holy Land), as I work my way through his Columbia catalogue in chronological order, the next one in line is his first Christmas album, The Christmas Spirit.

My taste in Christmas albums is wide and varied. In the top 5, I’d place Elvis’ first Christmas album, Low’s wonderful Christmas, Boney M’s disco-reggae classic, Bruce Cockburn’s late 90’s acoustic wonder, and for an older chestnut, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. While I think there was potential for Cash to make a unique, classic Christmas album, akin to his distinct take on gospel music in Hymns, he never quite got there. The Christmas Spirit, though, is his best effort of the four holiday albums he released over his lifetime.

The opening title track sets the tone. A narrative piece, set to O Little Town of Bethlehem, it provides a modern travelogue in which Johnny dreams of travelling to London, Bavaria, Bethlehem, and Paris. After buying a Bible in a souvenir shop in Bethlehem, he opens it in Paris, finally understanding the true meaning of Christmas as he reads:

“For I read ‘fear not for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy Which shall be to all people For unto you he was born this day in the City of David a Saviour Which is Christ the Lord’”

Johnny was still living wild at this stage, but in this soft story, you can feel the sincerity of his yearning for hope and peace. This is the Johnny we’d see increasingly through the 70s, turning to the Bible time and time again, finding God in the words of Scripture.

The album is filled with such narratives. Here Was a Man is a classic Johnny loved to recite about the inspiration he found in Christ. Christmas as I Knew It reflects on the generosity between the sharecroppers in Johnny’s home of Dyess, Arkansas. Interestingly, it was written by June Carter and Opry favourite Jan Howard. Closing track, Ballad of the Harpweaver, is one of Johnny’s favourite poems, a haunting, magical tale of a boy and his mother. The dulcimer-like accompaniment gives it a real Appalachian flavor and reflects the growing influence the Carters had on Cash. Increasingly, Cash would sing coal-mining tales from the Carters’ Virginia amidst tales of the agricultural world he grew up in to the west. Certainly this version triumphs over the earlier take he recorded in 1959.

Elsewhere, the album features a mix of new and old Christmas tunes. There are acoustic renditions of old English hymns – I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day and The Friendly Beasts (also recorded in that era by Burl Ives and Harry Belafonte), here arranged as The Gifts They Gave – as well as the perennial favourite Silent Night. He takes his turn at Elvis’ Blue Christmas which, while featuring a gorgeous bluesy drawl from Cash, can’t touch Presley’s raucous rendition. There’s also his 1959 single The Little Drummer Boy, which, with its raw, Sun-era sound, sticks out a bit from the gentler sound of the rest of this album.

The back end of the album is then filled out with three originals. Ringing the Bells for Jim, again written by June Carter and Jan Howard, is an upbeat waltz about a boy who rings the church bells at midnight on Christmas to call the priest to pray for his dying brother. We are the Shepherds, penned by Cash and set to the tune of The Streets of Laredo, looks at Christmas through the simple eyes of the shepherds. Who Kept the Sheep marks the first songwriting collaboration between Johnny and June. June plays the autoharp, and Cash muses on the fate of the sheep left behind in their fields when the shepherds went to see Christ.

All in all, The Spirit of Christmas is a truly unique Christmas album. Save for Blue Christmas and the Little Drummer Boy, it is largely pastoral. Where Elvis was having fun at Christmas, you can imagine Johnny sitting quietly by the fire enjoying the simple pleasures of a rural Christmas. The tales of Christmas are humble, and the bulk of the album lilts along in waltz time, a departure from his usual 1-2-3-4 boom chicka boom sound.

The Christmas Spirit doesn’t quite stand up as a classic, but it is an effective, quiet Christmas album, best listened to at night by the fire.

4/5

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