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12 days of Christmas: An homage to “I Saw Three Ships” by Bruce Cockburn

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Guitar in Woods

With every Christmas season comes yet another onslaught of seasonal music, led every year by another “new” song by the latest pop or country sensation. Who can forget – actually who can remember some of the classics over the years by Bryan Adams, Blake Shelton, Garth Brooks, Christina Aguilera, Justin Bieber or Hanson? These really do come across as blatant attempts to cash in on Christmas.

Canadian roots artists have also had a similar wish to turn the season into a source of holiday cash, with artists such as the Barenaked Ladies, Crash Test Dummies, Ron Sexsmith and even the Arrogant Worms (editor’s note: the author is a member of the Worms) releasing music of the season. Again, there is often a scent of cynicism in these releases; one is left wondering if the artist really cares for the music or the season or just wants to find a seasonal tune that nobody else has done. Even when writing original music the same themes are revisited over and over.

For me, one album that broke the mold was Bruce Cockburn’s 1989 album Christmas. On this album, Bruce interpreted many classic carols like “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “Silent Night” giving them his unique guitar and vocal style while still staying true to the lyrics and spirit of the song. He turns “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Early On One Christmas Morn” into relaxed beer hall singalongs and “Les Angens dans nos Campagnes” into an Indian-ish raga.

I find the standout track to be his version of “I Saw Three Ships.” It’s moody, yet driving; the guitar and vocal lines are prominent yet fit perfectly with very minimal bass and percussion. It gives the tune a bit of a Celtic lilt, an upbeat vibe, and it just becomes a joyful song that could be played year-round. And I play it year-round.

However, the album that everyone should buy is The Arrogant Worms Christmas Turkey. Even if you hate it there’s no sense in both of us having a crappy Christmas (editor’s note: the author is a member of the Worms).

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