A while back, on our Facebook page, fiddler Keith McManus posted a video link to the song, Breaking Up Christmas, played by Tommy Jarrell (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fGg2gUgkT0 ). This video looks like it could have been shot yesterday, but actually it was made in 1983, when Tommy was a spry 82 years old. It's kind of amazing how well he plays this song at that age, so readers of this humble blog will not be surprised to learn that he is a member of the Old Time Fiddler's Hall of Fame. Check out his bio at http://www.oldtimemusic.com/FHOFJarrell.html .
Tommy's full name was Thomas Jefferson Jarrell in Airy North Carolina. If I may add a personal note, my great grandfather was named Thomas Jefferson Kennel, so do you suppose I might be related?
I was kind of tickled at the story of how he proposed to his wife, Nina. According to his OTFHOF bio,
Tommy had known Nina about two years before he married her. He proposed while they were hoeing corn one day. He said "Nina, we'll get married if you want to. But I'll tell you right now, I make whiskey, I play poker, and I go to dances, make music, and I don't know whether I'll ever quit that or not. But, if you think we can get along now, we'll get married - and if you don't think we can, right now's the time to say something.""Well," Nina said, "I believe we'd get along all right." And that was the way it happened.
We are indebted to Alan Lomax for shooting the original video. Alan and his dad John were giants in the field of history of music, and recorded many of the old timers including Tommy. And the fact is, John and Alan are one of my main inspirations for writing this blog. Back in the day, American folk music was basically ignored by academics (i.e., intellectual snobs), who thought that classical music was the only form of music worthy of serious study. But John and Alan realized this was a terribly short-sighted view, and went around the country recording and transcribing literally thousands of American folk musicians, in order to transmit the music and history to future generations.
By the same token, little Elliot believes that future generations will have an interest in the music that was played in Morgantown West Virginia. It's very unique, very good, and also very unappreciated. In a small way, then, our humble jam is contributing to the musical history of the region, and even the world, judging by the amazing number of musicians around the world that seem to love what we do. Even now Keith is off touring Australia playing fiddle (and hunting crocodiles, probably).
At the Brew Pub and other jam spots in the Morgantown area, folks like me have the audacity to sit and play with some people that are incredibly talented. If it was a rock and roll venue, it would sort of be like playing with types like Paul McCartney, Chuck Berry and Lady Gaga. The main difference is that Old Time musicians don't do quite as well financially, and perhaps dress a bit more conservatively than Lady Gaga. As Bob Shank humorously explains, "I can make tens of dollars doing what I love!"
Well, ok, back to the song. It's played in the key of A, and a version is appended below, courtesy of traditional music preservations The lyrics are pretty simple:
Hooray Jake, Hooray John,
Breaking Up Christmas all day long.
Way back yonder a long time ago,
The old folks danced at the do-si-do.
Santa Claus come, done and gone,
Breaking up Christmas right along.
The song is about celebrating Christmas in a much different way than it is usually celebrated today. Years ago, mountain people had house parties every night for about two weeks. Before there was TV, radio and video games, etc., the way that people entertained themselves was to play folk music and have folk dancing,usually square dancing or "contra dancing" as it's known in Europe. After about two weeks, "breaking up Christmas" meant that it was time to bring the celebration to a close.
I think there is a lot of merit to celebrating that way. Our commercial Christmas is an exercise in emotional overload, and in my opinion most children can't really process a few hours of presents in a truly meaningful way.
I believe that people are social animals, by and large, and that one of the joys of being human is to have friends and to make music together. It's as simple as that.
At our house, we try to spread things out by giving a gift or two each day between Christmas Eve (or even a day or two early) till New Years or so. This year my family is getting ready to move back to Ohio and so we didn't spend a lot of money onn presents (hint: go to the Dollar Store and buy a bunch of stuff for $1 each). But the nicest thing is to share good times with family and friends. Going to church is a good time around the holidays. And an occasional jam is not a bad thing either.
By the way "do-si-do" is a square dance (folk dance) call, which is corrupted from the French "dos à dos" (back to back) in which the dancers turn their backs to one another.