On Oct. 15th, GRAMMY-nominated recording artist Elizabeth Mitchell releases The Sounding Joy, an exploration of Christmas and solstice songs from the American folk tradition. Drawn almost exclusively from the often overlooked but deeply influential songbook of revered composer and anthologist Ruth Crawford Seeger, these songs evoke an era before mass media and the commercialization of Christmas, when sacred song, dance, contemplation, and gathering were prized above all else during the holiday season. Mitchell’s fifth album for Smithsonian Folkways, The Sounding Joy features husband Daniel Littleton, daughter Storey, and special guests Peggy Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Amy Helm, Aoife O’Donovan, Gail Ann Dorsey, Larry Campbell, Dan Zanes, and John Sebastian, among many other family, friends, and neighbors. This gorgeously reverent 24-song collection attempts to save these traditional American holiday songs from an “unmarked grave,” as Merchant puts it in her essay included in the liner notes. The Sounding Joy is truly for listeners of all ages and is Smithsonian Folkways’ first holiday album in more than a decade.
While recovering from surgery four years ago, Mitchell spent a Thanksgiving weekend thinking about the project that would eventually become The Sounding Joy. A longtime fan and champion of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s work, Mitchell soon found herself thoroughly immersed in Seeger’s third and final songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas. Seeger, mother of musicians Mike and Peggy Seeger and stepmother of Pete Seeger, died from cancer at age 52 in 1953, the very same year American Folk Songs for Christmas was published.
Mitchell chose to strike a balance between remaining faithful to the beauty and subtle complexity of Seeger’s unique arrangements, and bringing her own breadth and range as a producer and arranger to bear on these largely unknown traditional songs. The wide diversity of voices, players, and instruments on the album breathes new life into words first sung over a century ago by farmhands, country preachers, and small-town congregations and gospel groups.
Sneak peek at 'The Sounding Joy': http://www.folkways.si.edu/radio/sounding_joy_preview/little-bitty-baby....
Adapting a number of Seeger’s piano arrangements for a string trio and inventive percussion, Mitchell radiates warmth on “Ain’t That Rocking” and “Shine Like a Star.” Amy Helm leads a rousing version of “Last Month of the Year” through a groove and vocal quartet style that invokes the early Staple Singers with guitar figures reminiscent of Malian desert blues. Merchant lends her vocals on the haunting “Joseph and Mary (The Cherry Tree Carol),” and also contributes an essay to the liner notes, while writer/artist Brian Selznick (author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret) provided illustrations for the album package. Recordings not from the songbook include classics “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and an a cappella arrangement of “Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming,” a “family heirloom” arranged by Elizabeth’s father-in-law, Michael Storey Littleton.
Although the songs presented are specific to the Christian tradition, Mitchell’s husband Daniel Littleton cites the inclusive nature of the project, describing the assembly of musicians as an “ecumenical summit” of sorts, with participants of many religious and non-religious backgrounds coming together happily to bring the songs to life. Mitchell sums up the spirit of the album best in her notes: “However you and your loved ones celebrate the last month of the year, I hope it is filled with the sounds of joy.”
The Sounding Joy Tracklist:
Mitchell is a founding member of the veteran indie rock band Ida and is one of Smithsonian Folkways’ best-selling artists alongside Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Ella Jenkins. Her previous Smithsonian Folkways releases are Blue Clouds (2012), the GRAMMY-nominated Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie (2012), Sunny Day (2010), and You Are My Little Bird (2006). Elizabeth and Dan Zanes also recently released a duet album Turn, Turn, Turn. Starting with the album You Are My Flower, recorded in 1998 in a single afternoon as a gift for friends and family, Mitchell has developed into an accomplished artist with a devoted fan base and critical acclaim. She recently hosted the children’s music tent at the Newport Folk Festival for the third time, and NPR (All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation) described her music as “some of the most uplifting kids’ music out there,” while People Magazine described Little Seed as “exquisite.”