The Washington Revels,
Behold That Star!
An American Song Quilt

(Revels Records, 2001)

Behold That Star! is an album of twenty-nine songs taken from the Washington Revels' 1998 Christmas production, harking back to the decades that followed the Civil War and the confluence of cultures that met in the poorer parts of that area. While the theme depicts "...families in such a community..., doing their best to get on and get along as the Christmas season approaches," most of the music itself has little to do with Christmas. It's an interesting assortment of musical styles and traditions that met in the mid-Atlantic states in the late 19th century, well performed in the studio by a variety of skilled singers and musicians with the combination of solo, choral and instrumental pieces work characteristic of Revels performances and recordings.

When I first played this album, I was most struck by its overwhelming evangelical Christian content. Seven of the songs are instrumental pieces; of the remaining 22, only three or four are not explicitly and passionately Christian. I was surprised by this, since usually Revels performances and albums are more balanced between Christian and non-Christian (including secular and other religious) themes. Since I do not share this religious path, its preponderance gave me little to connect with on the CD, especially given the dearth of Christmas content (six songs of the twenty-nine). I know that gospel themes and music are a vital part of our American musical heritage, in all their forms. I personally enjoy many individual songs from this tradition. But I also know that the Christian musical traditions were usually paralleled by similar secular styles, each drawing from the other, and the lack of such a balance here is a weakness of the album.

The music here is excellent. I particularly liked "The Housewife's Lament," with lyrics including "There's nothing that lasts us but trouble and dirt." I know that's how I feel when cleaning house! It's followed by "All Hid," a musical call-and-response accompaniment to a game of hide-and-seek, performed by Janet Butler, a soloist with a remarkable voice, and the Eastern Star Children. "Run, Mary, Run" is a song from slavery days, when it was sung as encouragement to escaping slaves; Michelle S. Terrell Long's rich, powerful voice makes its simple words and music amazing. "Lullabies" pairs Terrell's rendition of a traditional African-American lullaby with an Appalachian cradle song sung by Karen C. Foley.

Of the Christmas songs, "Behold That Star!" is a stand-out that deserves wider recognition as a Christmas carol. Its gospel style is rendered perfectly by soloist Keith A. Moore and both the Shepherd Alley Singers and the children. "The Babe of Bethlehem" is included as one example of the songs in the shape-note hymnal "Southern Harmony." ("Shape note" is so called since the musical tones were depicted by the shapes of the notes, instead of position on a musical staff, making it easier to read and sing along.) "Heaven's Christmas Tree" has imagery equating the Christmas tree with the cross on which Jesus died, an image deeply meaningful to believers but somewhat disconcerting to others. "I Wonder as I Wander" is sung a capella by Terell L. Izzard with passion and expression, accompanied by Felecia Vida Stovall's retelling of the Christmas story.

The instrumental pieces are all excellent. "Ring the Bells of Heaven," "Good News," "American Brass Band Suite" and "Move Forward" are all performed by the Good News Brass, an all-brass ensemble. The other instrumental pieces, "Savannah Gals," "Evening Star Waltz" and "Pater Roller'll Gut You," are performed by the Tiber Creek String Band with fiddles, guitars, string bass and a banjo. Both groups bring an infectious spirit to their lively numbers.

"Amazing Grace" is here performed in a variety of ways in a medley of styles: black congregational singing, Appalachian style with an improvised accompaniment and finally by the chorus acting as a harmonizing congregation. This was a fascinating combination! "Give Me Your Hand," a spiritual, is gorgeous, sung as a congregational call-and-response with soloist Charles Williams and the Shepherd Valley Singers. "Exultation," with its minor melody, is unusual and striking; it's also a shape-note hymn.

The liner notes contain the lyrics to the songs sung and much information on each piece, particularly nice when so many different -- but often related -- styles are included. The credits are also extensive and informative.

I've liked this album more as I've listened to it more and read the notes. It's a fascinating musical snapshot of a location and time, and the performances are, without exception, excellent. I recommend it to people interested in the history of American folk music, particularly of the mid Atlantic area and with a religious theme.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]