A Medieval Christmas
(Downe in the Heart of Texas)

I’ve been surrounded by musical types all my thirty four years of life. My Dad plays piano and guitar, my Mom can do a lovely harmony, my Grandfather was a Baptist minister of music, my Aunt sings a warm honey alto, another Aunt and I share a genetic admiration for certain albums, and musicians were always the boys to catch my eye. My friends are often musical, too, or über-artistic, and through a few of these chums, I met Kemper Crabb several years ago. I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone like him. His off-the-wall sense of humor was quite a shock to my shy little soul, he had a Gandalf-like demeanor (which is probably a result of how many times he’s read The Lord of the Rings), and he always spoke wisdom like a sage. Furthermore, he’s a native, die-hard Texan, an Episcopal priest, and a gifted teacher – quite the all-around modern Renaissance kind of guy. I’m grateful that we’ve remained friends – largely because, as fate would have it, I met my drummer-husband via Kemper and another scheming couple. Kemper’s been one of my greatest teachers, changing my worldview for the better, often by recommending a fantastic book.

Back when I met Kemper, I was in the midst of a folk-only musical phase, foaming at the mouth over the Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, The Story, and so on. Kemper’s music stopped me in my Birkenstocked tracks. There are ten albums in his discography, but my introductions were The Vigil and A Medieval Christmas. I should be able to describe his genre, yet the music of Kemper Crabb is nearly impossible to pin down. The Vigil, for instance, is a concept album based on a knight’s ritual of preparation, and possibly his most popular album to date (impressing the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn). And I have lamely tried to classify him: “art rock“, “old world/new world”, “ancient/future exotic-acoustic”, “head-spinningly eclectic.” You must hear his music to understand my dilemma, and luckily for you during this month of Advent, you easily can.

Just in the nick of Christmas-shopping time, Kemper released a DVD and CD entitled Downe in Yon Forrest: Christmas From the Middle Ages – footage of a concert filmed at Church of the Holy Apostles in Katy, TX, and its soundtrack. This festive project is a new, expanded arrangement of his earlier album of holy-day hymns and carols (A Medieval Christmas). And, a version of Downe in Yon Forrest will air on PBS this month on select stations nationwide. I’m pretty happy about all the hype because I’ve attended several of his Medieval Christmas concerts over the years, and ignoring any personal bias, I never find the set list to grow old – a relief to my Muzak-saturated ears this time of year.

Actually, there’s an upside to that annual, dreadful slaughter of good music in elevators and chaotic shopping malls at the onset of Thanksgiving. The innocent melodies themselves are lovely, many written by artistic medieval folks. People from that time are often branded as Dark Aged dolts or dimwits in history books, yet their songwriting expertise is hard to ignore. We can’t help but sing these songs every single year, and few know that we’ve caroled with gusto and cheer for over a millennium. Some of these tunes were written as early as the 8th or 9th century (and some lyrics date all the way back to the 4th century). As Kemper likes to say in concert, “The medieval Christmas carols are the greatest hits of the Western musical canon.” In more recent decades, countless musicians have tried their hand at these beloved songs, too. I own a mixed bag of Christmas albums by Johnny Cash, Over the Rhine, Emmylou Harris, and Sufjan Stevens, and as much as I adore them, Kemper’s take on Christmas is something magical and multicultural, displacing our sense of time.

His current lineup is a black-clad troupe playing a motley crew of ancient and modern instruments: Kemper, of course (mountain dulcimer, recorder, mandolin, bazouki, vocals), Ryan Birsinger (bowed psaltery and harmonium), Garett Buell (tabla and various percussion), Christina David (violin), Frank Hart (cello, sitar, vocals), David Marshall (guitar, recorder, bazouki, mandolin), John Simmons (um, yes, a close relation; djembe, doumbek, shakers, vocals), and Chris Whittington (guitar, vocals). On the Downe in Yon Forrest DVD, this harmonious bunch perform seated in a semi-circle, book-ended by percussion; religious icons and falling snow are interspersed with the live footage.

The ringing doumbek kicks off “What Child is This”. This is one signature aspect of Kemper’s vision – the percussion is prominent, to reflect what this music might have sounded like on medieval streets, versus the more refined courtly tradition of the time. With tribal flavor and a gypsy, raucous vibe, Kemper makes common songs new again and restores reverence to age-old lyrics with his smooth, lilting tenor. Modern takes on antique arrangements with riffs, Middle Eastern drones, and satisfying, head-bobbing rhythms help us to hear that “music of the Middle Ages was a fusion of (at least) three major things: Church music, Church chants, and indigenous European music with Muslim influence through the Crusades and centuries of trade.” Singing in rounds and three- or four-part harmonies brings out the joyfulness and beauty that our Medieval brethren intended as they celebrated Christmastide on the Church calendar.

Aside from friendship and toe-tapping music, I am forever grateful for Kemper’s history lessons during each concert. History gives us direction, and my faith is literally rooted in the historical. Another Kemper-proverb is, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you cannot know where you’re going.” This is the honest-to-God truth. Yet, all too often, history books are dry and poorly written, a monotonous list of dates instead of the story of the people who came before. But creativity and teaching are deep within Kemper’s soul, and by incorporating audio and visual aspects, he gives us one of the best types of history lessons and rollicking songs to boot. Some years ago, I might have mused that people from the Middle Ages were simpletons, not nearly as advanced as we are in 2008. Then I heard Kemper state in concert, “I’m always amused by how superior moderns think they are when you consider that modernity gave us Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, chemical warfare, nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and the abortion holocaust. More people died in the 20th century than had died in all the rest of human history together.” He goes on to say that we can look to medieval society as one that self-consciously attempted to replicate what they believed to be the city of God on earth. They failed of course, but “the fall injects a little bone-headedness into everything we [all] do.” My two cents is that I don’t see much architecture comparable to the Gothic cathedrals in Europe; not enough, anyway.

In today’s America, there’s a craving for the lyricism found in the artistry of these hymns and carols. The very words teach us truth, and why this season is celebratory at all. Commercialism has elbowed the beauty out of December for most intents and purposes. In my little suburb, for example, the most hideous lawn decor is propped up with pride, and I’m talking giant, inflatable snow globes and Santa Tigger. You might see some sort of Nativity scene, but don’t count on it. My husband and I hole up in our living room and order as many gifts online as possible in a desperate attempt to not set foot in a mall full of frantic, stressed-out shoppers. I do believe giving packages tied up with string is a lovely symbol of the greatest gift to our culture, and to the world – a swaddled infant Jesus, crying in full humanity while already King. But I think gift-giving has now reached ridiculous proportions and lost the richness in simplicity and meaning. Many people come to Kemper’s holiday concerts and find a vapid hole filled; a place to sit, hear, see, learn, and remember that there are more than enough days in this month, and these days are holy. The old lyrics keep us grounded in reality, too; as Kemper says, “Our society is fairly unrooted, so a lot of what’s driven the return to Celtic and more ancient forms of music is the desire to sink into what we can conceive of as roots versus the endless novelty.”

Good art speaks to people, no matter the time period. Bringing diverse elements together is part of the cultural task of an artist as well as making creative works their very own. I know that, for me, the namesake of Kemper’s newest project, the song “Downe in Yon Forrest”, is captivating every single time. In some modern circles it simply isn’t hip to say “I love my Lord Jesus above anything”, yet I challenge anyone to not find that song stunning. The lyrics are utterly poetic and the musicians play in such a way as to make my heart ache with the sheer beauty of it all, so finally I just asked Kemper, “Who wrote that amazing song?” Sadly, the author is unknown. It’s often thought to be an Appalachian song, but one thing Kemper does know for certain is that the song is British, dating back to the late 1400’s or early 1500’s. A song by an unknown medieval songwriter is still popular today because it was passed down from family to family, church to church, century to century, and historian to an avid reader (Kemper fits that bill). As he performs these ancient carols, we’re reminded that for all the good of contemporary music – and there’s a lot – we must not forget the old songs; it would be to our peril as a culture.

The diverse instrumentation also opens our ears to cultures with which we may not be familiar. And since our relationship with the Middle East is, well, a little tense, you might be intrigued by how many songs make use of their native drones and dissonance. Many believe the Eastern cultures are dead ends, but this simply isn’t the case. I’ve always found Islamic art – the lush, intricate shapes and patterns – to be beautiful. Muslim people (and those of every culture, far and wide) are made in the image of God. They, too, have something to contribute to what is truthful. There will always be something lovely to behold whether it be food, drink, visual art, music, or otherwise. I don’t ascribe to their religion, and I find in their offerings broken forms of beauty. But at the same time, it is my job to cultivate what is true and beautiful from multicultural sources and reflect back the complete picture, as best as I’m feebly able. And lest I and my fellow Christians forget, our faith originated in the same locale. Kemper wants his music to be a symbol of hope for the future as we exchange artistic, economic, and political ideas with the East once again (as in the Middle Ages). And that we’ll “walk away from these songs with an appreciation of the fact that our forebears could produce things of surpassing beauty.”

With such a great brain to pick, I just had to ask him my favorite Curator-related question: “What do you find to be rehumanizing in our culture today?” He notices a renewed search for mystery, with people grounding their meaning in some kind of narrative, and sees that much of art is drawing people out of themselves into a larger dimension. Yet, with the straight-shooting wisdom he’s known for, he summed it all up by saying, “It’s only through things that ultimately lead back to God; if they don’t find the connection to Christ – the only one who lived out humanity in its fullness without jacking it up in any way – then they’ll never be completely rehumanized.” I can’t tell you how much I love to hear someone state that opinion so plainly in the month of December. Since our art inevitably reveals what we believe, Kemper’s matter-of-factness is the primary reason I love the Medieval holiday music. Whether you share his faith or not, you’ll never hear Christmas music quite like this, at least not in the mall. Step away from the Muzak and into the Middle Ages.

To see Downe in Yon Forrest, please check your local listings or call/e-mail your local PBS station.

To purchase the Downe in Yon Forrest CD and DVD (and Kemper’s other albums), please visit the Kemper Crabb store.

To purchase the Downe in Yon Forrest DVD as seen on PBS, please visit the PBS store.

The Curator is an assemblage of original and found essays, poetry, reviews, quotations, image galleries, video, and other media in a continuing commitment to wrestle with all that is in culture, and to look toward all that ought to be in hope.