Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Stories Behind Some of Our Favorite Christmas Carols

We've been singing them for generations, to the point where we have the words so perfectly memorized that we no longer stop to think about what they mean. So, in honor of the 2014 holiday season, here are the stories behind some of our most treasured Christmas carols:

Good King Winceslas
Written by John Mason Neale to a traditional folk tune (actually a 13th-century spring carol whose Latin title translates to "It is Time for Flowering") in the time of Victorian Britain, this song hails from the town of East Grinstead, in the county of West Sussex. More specifically, it was born on the Sackville College campus that Neale called home at the time. The story Neale borrowed from to write the song was originally created in 1847 by a Czech poet named Václav Alois Svoboda.

The story in the song, which depicts the King (or Duke) of Bohemia taking food and wood to the peasants on Boxing Day, was most likely completely made up – and the actual story of King Winceslas is actually quite gory. (He was supposedly a kind king despite a sad upbringing, but was eventually murdered by his own brother.)

Jingle Bells
While "Jingle Bells" was not originally written to be a Christmas song, it was written to commemorate winter – and in particular, winter 1850's annual one-horse open-sleigh races on Salem and Pleasant Streets between Medford Square and Malden Square. The Medford, Massachusetts tradition was beloved by many, including James Pierpont, who wrote the song for his father's Sunday School class (and actually, some stories say, for Thanksgiving instead of Christmas.) What was originally called "The One Horse Open Sleigh" was eventually changed to "Jingle Bells", supposedly after a friend called Pierpont's creation "a merry little jingle." No one could have predicted then the long and famous life that this "little" tune would live.

Silent Night
Legend has it that an Austrian priest named Fr. Joseph Mohr wrote this carol in 1816 with the intention that it be sung by the children of his village (Mariapfarr) at the midnight Christmas Eve service as a surprise for their parents. However, in the middle of practicing, the church organ broke and so the children had to learn the carol only accompanied by a guitar. Despite of (or because of) this obstacle, the children learned the song so well that they could sing it without any musical accompaniment at all.

No evidence exists to support this legend, but we do know that it was originally written in German (as "Stille Nacht") and that Mohr's friend Franz Xaver Gruber wrote the music several years after Mohr wrote the words. At Midnight Mass in 1818, Fr. Mohr and Franz Gruber sang each of the six verses while the church choir repeated the last two lines of each verse. To this day, the earliest known written manuscript of the song (written around 1820) is housed within the Carolino Augusteum Museum in Salzburg.

"Silent Night" traveled the western world before it came to the United States, where it was first performed by the Rainer family in 1839. They sang the song at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church in New York City, and it was around that time that the original tune was changed into the one we know and sing today. In 1863, it was translated into English by John Freeman Young. Now one of the most recorded Christmas songs of all time, the carol was sung during the Christmas Truce of WWI in December 1914 – because it was one that both sides knew.

The 12 Days of Christmas
In England, between 1558 and 1829, it was illegal to be a Catholic. "The 12 Days of Christmas" was written towards the beginning of that era, when Catholics were first beginning to worship in secret, and so some think the carol was meant to help Catholic children learn about their religion in a covert way. However, there is no hard evidence of this – and it's just as likely that the song was originally meant to be a folk song, and those "hidden" Catholic symbols (which could also be interpreted as Protestant or any other Christian symbols) were added later on.

The "12 Days" that the song references are those within the period starting on Christmas Day and ending with the Epiphany on January 6th. The "true love" in the song ("On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...") is meant to be God, and each of the twelve gifts has religious significance: The "five golden rings" are the first five books of the Bible, the "ten lords a-leaping" are the Ten Commandments, and the "partridge in a pear tree" is Jesus who died on the cross (in ancient times a partridge was often used as a mythological symbol of a divine, sacred king.)

No matter which carols you sing to celebrate this year, we hope you and your loved ones all have a wonderful holiday season.

For more information and updates from the American music industry, be sure to keep checking in with us here on our official HillTop Records blog.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

More Than Jingle Bells: December's Best Music Festivals

With most of its days sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas, December is a month filled with gatherings. It's a time when friends, families and loved ones come together to celebrate the seasons, their relationships and life itself with an abundance of tinsel, food and (of course) music.

Undoubtedly, you will find a church or concert hall near you paying homage to the holidays with the sounds of live music this month. From Handel's Messiah to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies to (yes) Jingle Bells, you will surely hear many familiar songs and carols. But look a bit beyond those anticipated events, and you will also find a few fantastic music festivals.

Here are some we've got our eyes (and ears!) on this month:

Holiday Festival 2014 (12/5/2014 – 12/7/2014) in Boulder, Colorado
To beautifully kick off the year-end holiday season, Boulder offers a lively program of festive song and décor at the always impressive Macky Auditorium on CU Boulder's campus. The beloved annual tradition features choirs, orchestra, ensembles and faculty soloists from the university's College of Music. If you're interested in attending this year, please note that the event does have a tendency to sell out – so get your tickets as soon as possible.

Kirkwood Home For The Holidays (12/6/2014) in Atlanta, Georgia
Also happening the first weekend in December is the second annual Kirkwood Home for the Holidays festival, which will feature live holiday music on the main stage, fun children's activities, an open-air vendor market, a visit from Santa and a brand-new festive beverage bar for adults. With something for everyone, this event is sure to be a great time.

Psychedelic Festival (12/6/2014) in Austin, Texas
Not in the holiday spirit just yet? Don't worry, we've got something for you: This energetic festival is like a step back in time, with original psychedelic bands from the 60's and 70's – along with the bright décor, costumes and blacklight dance performances to match. You can expect to enjoy thematic art exhibits, a costume festival, and (of course) plenty of live music from the likes of Bubble Puppy, Shivas Headband, and the Silvertones.

Dalton Holidays Festival (12/6/2014 – 12/7/2014) in Dalton, Ohio
Meanwhile, in Ohio, things are definitely feeling a bit more seasonal. Come to the 38th Dalton Holidays Festival for a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit enhanced by small-town charm. From a craft show with over 90 exhibitors to the self-proclaimed "coolest" parade in the state, this unique event has a lot to show for itself. This year will feature favorites like Mrs. Claus' pantry (which sells local Amish desserts) to new events like the Reindeer Rally Scavenger Hunt and Turkey Bowling. Add a team of roving entertainers, special festivities for children and wonderful music, and you have a truly unforgettable festival.

Festival Navideno CalleOcho LA 2014 (12/6/2014 – 12/7/2014) in Los Angeles, California
The largest Latino event during the holiday season, this festival combines charity (it features a well known toy drive) with family-friendly fun. Attendees can expect to enjoy ten whole city blocks of world-class live entertainment on outdoor stages and delicious Latin food – and admission is free! It's sure to be a lively way to kick off Christmastime.

The Day of Tango Festival (12/6/2014 – 12/7/2014) in Austin, Texas
Sure, this festival is more about dance than music – but really, what's one without the other? Join the prestigious Academy of Tango – Texas for its fourth annual event, featuring international Tango champions, performers and musicians. The line-up includes the Miguel Arrabel Quartet from Buenos Aires, and the dance performances are sure to be nothing short of spectacular. Come see for yourself the beautiful tradition that Argentina has been celebrating for decades!

Boogie in the Bungalow (12/13/14 – 12/14/14) in Hamburg, Pennsylvania
At a time of year when most people would rather stay indoors, this raucous music festival brings the outdoors in. It is held in a giant indoor rodeo arena with dirt floors on which concert-goers set up camp. Food and craft vendors will be sprinkled throughout, while world-class music keeps the party going all weekend long. This year's lineup features Chronicles of Sound, The Royal Noise, and Flux Capacitor, among others.

Lights All Night (12/26/14 – 12/27/14) in Dallas, Texas
No gimmicks here; this is one festival that's all about the music. The lineup features Black Frames, Chromeo, Christian Martin, Jesse Hutton, Closed Caption, Skrillex, Zedd and so many more. Let go and enjoy the sounds while you dance the night away on a seemingly endless dance floor that fills the Dallas Convention Center. It's the perfect party to liven up the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve.

For even more great festivals (holiday-themed and otherwise) near you, be sure to check out – and keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records as we bring you the latest news, commentary and updates from the American music industry.

From all of us here at HillTop: Happy Holidays!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ralph Peer, American Music Pioneer

(Photo courtesy of PBS)

"During a two-week period late in the summer of 1927, a little-known producer named Ralph Peer recorded 77 songs in a hat warehouse he had converted to a studio. It would turn out to be a landmark moment, known as the Bristol Sessions, that Johnny Cash would later call 'the single most important event in the history of country music.'"

So begins an article recently published by PBS, evocatively titled "The modern music industry was shaped by a man you've never heard of." It follows the release of a new book by music journalist Barr Mazor, called "Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music."

So, who exactly was Ralph Peer – and why all the sudden fuss over a man we've "never heard of"?

Born in Missouri in 1892, Ralph Peer built for himself a successful career in recording engineering and record producing – by completely changing the way those things were done. In particular, Peer is credited with pioneering the field recording of music: In June of 1923, he strayed from the norm (which involved inviting artists to record their music in unfamiliar sound studios) by taking his recording equipment on the road. He traveled south to Atlanta, Georgia, where he recorded regional music in places like hotel rooms, ballrooms, and empty warehouse so as to bring the studio to the artist, instead of the other way around. In that way, he revolutionized the way that things were done.

But he didn't stop there. Peer also transformed the way we listen to music, and the way in which artists were paid. He was known to seek out rustic, emotional songs that relied heavily on improvisation, rather than those that could be easily transcribed to sheet music. He then helped create Broadcast Music, Inc. to monetize those records once they were recorded and also guarantee that the musicians were paid whenever their songs were played. To this day, BMI remains an important entity in the music industry. It is a Performance Rights Organization paying royalties to its members for performances of their music and representing some of the biggest names in every possible genre.

In addition to those mighty accomplishments, Ralph Peer may have been the one to give us the first-ever country music recording ("Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane"/"That Old Hen Cackled and The Rooster's Goin' To Crow" by Fiddlin' John Carson) and his efforts as a talent scout gave us Jimmie Rodgers (who later became known as the Father of Country Music) and the Carter Family, whom he discovered while touring the southern states with Victor Records in August 1927. He recorded both of them as part of the Bristol Sessions.

Peer's ear was not only tuned to country music. He also went on to publish and record jazz artists through the Southern Music Publishing Company. Those artists included Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. In addition, he worked with popular music artists and recorded Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia On My Mind."

In the 1930's, Peer discovered Central American music and was one of the pioneers to bring those sounds to the United States. During and after World War II, he published such American classics as "You Are My Sunshine" (sung by Jimmie Davis, covered by Bing Crosby and many others) and "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" (Russ Morgan.) Before eventually retiring from the music industry, Peer ventured into the world of '50's rock: Southern published hits by Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and others.

Although Ralph Peer was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1984, we don't seem to hear much about him today. He worked behind the scenes, letting the stars he recorded outshine him with their fame – but his contributions to American music as we know it today were immeasurable.

Now, at a time when the music industry is once again going through a period of great change, it is important to look back on the careers of those who came before us – those who gracefully dealt with and adapted to change, and (perhaps more importantly) those who led the charge. Ralph Peer was one of those people. He altered the landscape of the American music scene by adapting local music to suit a broader audience – and also by making sure that those musicians were paid their fair share. He would surely have a lot to say about today's migrating culture, and about the technologies that are once again changing the ways in which we record, listen to and pay for music.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Giving Thanks For This Month's Best Music Festivals

As November's notorious chill draws us indoors, we see fewer and fewer music festivals on the calendar – but that doesn't mean there aren't events to look forward to as the year winds to a close. Especially in warmer states like Florida, this month offers an array of fun-filled festivals. Here are a few we've got our eye on:

Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival (11/7/2014 – 11/8/2014) in Wilmington, Ohio
How to hold a music festival in November? Why, have it in doors, of course! This event brings the great outdoors in with live music and exciting events. The lineup will feature the finest bluegrass and acoustic music from around the region, and it promises to be a great time for all.

Sixth Annual Native Rhythms Festival (11/7/2014 – 11/9/2014) in Melbourne, Florida
Now in its sixth year, this event just keeps getting better. It offers plenty of live musical performances throughout each day (the headliners play from late afternoon through 10:00pm) as well as a variety of free workshops on everything from the history of different instruments to beading. There will also be over 40 vendors selling musical instruments, arts and crafts, and food. Feel free to bring the little ones, as the festival is family-friendly.

Chandler Rock the Block (11/8/2014) in Chandler, Arizona
A one-day-only event that is one of the city's biggest, Rock the Block is something that Chandler residents wait all year long for. This year it will feature two stages of live entertainment, including a community stage home to the Chandler's Got Talent show. Additional highlights of the event include a gigantic kids zone, a stunts display presented by Redbull, food trucks, a beer garden, and merchandise booths. The fun is scheduled to start at 10:00am and admission is free.

Dallas Modern Music Festival (11/14/2014) in Dallas, Texas
Dedicated to engaging audiences in the best of modern music, this celebration encompasses everything from twentieth-century masterworks to brand-new compositions. Attendees can expect to enjoy the best from living composers, brought to them via unforgettable live performances.

Venice Blues Festival (11/15/2014) in Venice, Florida
If you love the blues and live in the Florida area, you don't want to miss this fantastic event. It will be taking over Maxine Barritt Park and packed with live performances by the likes of Mac Arnold and Joe Moss. The music will surely be wonderful, and the setting idyllic.

Rockefellas Music Festival (11/15/2014 – 11/16/2014) in Lake Elsinore, California
Come to this inaugural event to enjoy popular classic rock tribute bands on a large main stage as well as a classic car show, an art walk, vendor booths, beer and wine gardens, and even a ferris wheel. With everything from local food and drink to live local bands, this festival has truly got something for everyone. The lineup features seventeen tribute bands including The Ultimate Stones (Rolling Stones), Vintage Halen (Van Halen) and The Petty Breakers (Tom Petty).

St. Johns River Blues Festival (11/15/2014 – 11/16/2014) in Palatka, Florida
A two-day blues festival and music competition, this event draws crowds from around the region. It celebrates the diversity of Palatka's Southern Blues heritage while also promoting tourism and the arts. Nearly two dozen local bands are scheduled to play on  multiple stages, and admission and parking are free.

Dunedin Celtic Music & Craft Beer Festival (11/22/2014) in Dunedin, Florida
This unique event combines beautiful Celtic music with locally brewed beers to create an atmosphere that is lively and fun. The lineup includes Albannach, the Cutthroat Shamrocks and My Three Kilts. The beer will be provided by Dunedin Brewery, 7th Sun Brewery, Cigar City Brewery and more. There will also be local arts and crafts, and food for sale.

Lake Park Seafood & Music Fest (11/22/2014 – 11/23/2014) in Lake Park, Florida
With two full days of family-friendly fun and fresh local seafood, this event would be great even if it didn't have a Grammy-winning national touring act – but it does. Headlined by Montgomery Gentry, this music festival has everything from arts vendors to a paddleboard race. There will also be cornhole competitions and other events sure to keep the entire family having a wonderful time.

Sonora Christmas Craft and Music Festival (11/28/2014 – 11/30/2014) in Sonora California
In anticipation of the 2014 holiday season, this crafts show offers more than 150 quality craft and graphic artists from around the West Coast. Browse though booths selling everything from artisan food items to homemade candles and jewelry while enjoying a fantastic lineup of entertainers. Four stages will feature carolers, vintage jazz and steel drum musicians, jugglers and storytellers as well as Santa & The Merry Elves and more.

For even more live music events near you, be sure to visit – and remember to keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records as we bring you the latest news and updates from the American music industry.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Behind the Music: Special Art Exhibits to See Now

The music industry is abuzz with the news that a new exhibit is coming to the Country Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee – and it's not about country music.

Instead, the special exhibit – which is entitled "Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City" – is all about rock, in terms of how it affected the scene in Nashville and other parts of the country. Of course, there will be some crossover into the country music genre, but the focus will be shifted onto a part of the city’s musical history that is a bit lesser known.

Says Museum Director Kyle Young in a recent interview with BillboardBiz: “Nashville has always been a more nuanced music center than it commonly gets credit for, and the same thing could be said for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. We strive to tell the full story of country music’s evolving history using a mix of provocative learning experiences, and this exhibit is a great opportunity to talk about the early confluence of country and rock.”

“Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City” won’t be coming to the Country Music Hall of Fame until March 2015, at which point it is scheduled to run through the end of 2016. However, if you are itching to explore the history of rock music in an educational and interactive way, here are some other museum exhibits that are worth checking out:

“David Bowie Is” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
September 23, 2014 – January 4, 2015

Lauded as one of the most pioneering and influential performers of our time, David Bowie has a story that simply does not fit into words. Instead, this incredible exhibit showcases the legendary artist’s influence on music, film and fashion through a state-of-the-art combination of sound, video, lighting and props. Listen to the voiceover tour that follows from room to room via advanced headset while touring the impressive collection of artifacts from Bowie’s own private collection, which MCA’s website describes as:

Alongside such prominent examples are more personal items such as never-before-seen storyboards, handwritten set lists and lyrics, and some of Bowie’s own sketches, musical scores, and diary entries, which help reveal the evolution of his creative ideas. His chameleonic character transformations throughout the years are central to his contribution to contemporary culture and highly relevant to contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman, Wu Tsang, Janelle Monae, and Lady Gaga.”

This is apparently the only U.S. stop that this tour will make – so if you’re in the Chicago area, you won’t want to miss it.

“Common Ground: The Music Festival Experience” at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Opened April 25, 2014

Instead of focusing on a singular artist or genre, this well curated exhibit gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of music festivals – all kinds of music festivals, from Muddy Waters at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival to Deadmau5 at Lollapalooza in 2011.

From the official website: “Whether it’s forging human bonds, building a sense of community, providing broad exposure for musical artists – both old and new – or as one of the most important economic engines of the music industry, the story of the music festival is inextricably linked with music’s powerful cultural impact around the globe.”

“Common Ground” is currently one of the major exhibits at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but certainly not the only one. While you’re there, you can also view Beyone’s personal fashion collection as well as the “Right Here, Right Now” exhibit featuring contemporary artists like the Black Keys, Lady Gaga, and Bruno Mars.

For more information on upcoming events and news from the American music industry, be sure to keep checking back with us at HillTop Records.