Warming Winter Music From The Catskills To Boston

Music is an essential part of winter. Sometimes, though, those familiar winter music songs and carols can get a bit overdone or seem a bit , well, too familiar.

On the good side, music can evoke warming memories or open doors to new places and communities. Those things can be especially true with music of the winter season.

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Perhaps your travel this winter will be around the block or up the hallway.

However, there is winter music that can take you to these memories and through these doorways, music that will engage your imagination as you honor and celebrate Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas, and yes, winter.

Even if their names are not immediately familiar, you will likely have heard music by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Their creative ways with the varied strands of roots and folk music have provided soundtracks for many of the films of Ken Burns, and other film projects as well. Several years ago, Jay and Molly, along with Jay’s daughter Ruthy and her husband Michael Merenda, traveled from their homes in the Catskill Mountains of New York State to Virginia to join up with the University of Mary Washington Philharmonic Orchestra for a celebration of winter music. The program was filmed for public television and has been released in audio and video as A Fiddler’s Holiday.

All four members of the Jay & Molly Family Band play several instruments and they all sing. Then there’s the orchestra. It’s good fun to see and hear the classical musicians enjoying getting into lively pieces including Lights Of Chanukah and Silent Night Two Step.
There are quieter moments, too. Molly’s original piano led tune The Snowstorm and her singing on Darkest Days, Brightest Nights stand out, as does Jay’s fiddle on his classic Ashokan Farewell. It’s a welcoming, family friendly project that’ll warm your heart and lift your spirits with its exploration of winter music.

Rani Arbo and the three men who make up daisy mayhem know cold winters: they are all based in New England. That is a thread than runs through their recording Wintersong. Darkness and light, grief and hope all are well present in the stories they tell. They tell them well, too. All four sing and often trade lead and harmony, a collaborative way of working that’s been honed over their nearly two decades of working together.

Rani Arbo’s main instrument is the fiddle. Andrew Kinsey most often plays bass, Anand Nayak focuses on guitar, and Scott Kessel provides percussion, which he offers on a handmade drum kit which includes such items as cookie tins and pizza boxes as well as more familiar sorts percussion instruments. Every song on Wintersong is thought provoking in one way or another. Their explorations of winter music range from settings of classic poems to gospel songs to a song by a bluegrass great to a re-imagining of a medieval hymn. Listen out especially for Hot Buttered Rum, Julian of Norwich, Ring Out Wild Bells, and Bonne Année. That latter one, a lively Cajun song for the new year, will likely have you joining in even if you do not know a word of French.

Matt and Shannon Heaton create original winter music and draw on well chosen covers of older pieces,on their album Fine Winter’s Night. Community and connection are ideas which recur, well framed in images and stories of winter. Shannon’s title track Fine Winter’s Night sets the idea as it contrasts cold brilliant star filled skies outside with warmth and welcome at the hearth within.

Both Heatons sing (their harmonies are a fine aspect of the songs here) and they both write songs and tunes. Matt’s primary instrument is guitar; Shannon’s is flute. They are based in the Boston area and have deep roots in the music of Ireland, where they have also spent time.

Shannon’s song Julius the Christmas Cat adds new dimension to a well loved story, while Matt’s First Snowfall of December evokes a lovely moment of a Victorian era winter. They have a gift for making well known carols including It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and The Wexford Carol their own, and there’s a good selection of tunes (that is, music without words) to go along as well. Looking out at the stars or enjoying a cup of cocoa by the fire, the music on Fine Winter’s Night makes a good companion.

Many are the songs and albums of winter music, of course. Begin with the work of these creative musicians, and see where your explorations take you.

Wherever that may be and whatever holiday may be on your calendar. we wish you the best this winter season.

Side note: As live music is paused or limited in these times, keep an eye out for these artists online. Jay Ungar and Molly Mason offer Americana song and tune on Wednesday evenings US time from their Facebook page. Matt and Shannon Heaton lead an Irish music session on Saturday afternoons US time from Shannon’s YouTube page.

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