After desecratingreinventing… Irving Berlin’s (by way of Bing Crosby) masterpiece, White Christmas on the other side of this release, The Ravens gleefully gather up their torches to pillage an even older and more venerated Christmas song here, yet another made modernly famous by Crosby who by this time may have been thinking of filing charges against The Ravens and anyone who bought this record.

Naturally that condemnation from the guardians of traditional values means we can’t wait to see what they brought to the table this time around on the flip side of the first rock Christmas record ever released.

Needless to say the results are just as shocking, if not more so.

Mother And Child
Not that there are people who study this sort of thing (actually there are… of course there are!) but Christmas songs generally fall into two main camps, easily differentiated from one another at a glance, yet co-mingling freely since the dawn of the radio age.

On one side you have the traditional Christmas carols, primarily religious in nature dating back to the 19th Century or earlier. By their nature these hymns are structurally different than almost any other music widely heard in modern times and frequently versions sung by full choirs give another unique sound that is otherwise missing from popular music in the 20th and now 21st Centuries.

The other side of the Christmas ledger involves songs composed in the popular music styles of the modern recording era, songs with more familiar verse-chorus-verse structure and typically secular rather than religious themes, thereby shifting the focus of the holiday to cartoonish fictitious characters like Santa Claus, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty The Snowman rather than spiritual fictitious characters like Mary, Joseph and Jesus (Oh, c’mon! Lighten up! Go have some spiked eggnog or something!).

Silent Night is perhaps the pinnacle of the traditional Christmas carol form, with its religious imagery and bygone musical structure. Through annual re-airings each Christmas season the song remains instantly familiar and popular into the 21st Century… now nearing two full centuries after it first appeared in 1818.

Holy Night
We’re still closer in time to 1948 than 1948 was to 1818, but the gap is narrowing (we’re no longer twice as far away, which is frightening), so this is an interesting way to examine not just the rift between pre-rock and post-rock music, but also pre-modern and modern music.

The origins of Silent Night are pretty well documented but as a Christmas gift to those of you who might not be as familiar with it, here’s the story in a nutshell:

Written as a poem by Austrian priest Joseph Mohr in 1816, then two years later, at his request, the organist at his church set it to an original melody for guitar (supposedly the organ was broken) on Christmas Eve, 1818 so it could be played at the midnight mass that same night. It was originally done in a more jaunty way, in 6/8 time, before it was slowed considerably over the ensuing years as the song spread beyond its regional origins and took on a lullabye-esque motif.

It’s hard nowadays after hearing it in its amended form your entire life (unless you’re a two hundred year old Austrian who was at that service, in which case “congratulations”), to imagine it any other way. But listening to The Ravens deliver it maybe you can start to, for while they don’t quite revert back to the original form they do shake it up a little bit and take it slightly away from the strict solemnity it’s had affixed to it in the last century or more.


All Is Bright
The first thing you notice is the fact it doesn’t start off with Silent Night at all, but rather a spoken stanza from T’was The Night Before Christmas.

It’s an interesting choice and one that immediately sets it apart from the dominant image of the song that existed at the time, and for the most part has existed since.

Delivered by Jimmy Ricks in a wizened tone, almost like a grandfather (though he was just 24 at the time) reciting it to rambunctious kids on Christmas Eve in an attempt to settle them down, it’s amazingly effective at setting up the ensuing song, even if – once again – the more pious listeners at the time would cry blasphemy for affixing anything secular onto such a devout hymn.

But even they might be swayed, temporarily at least, when The Ravens enter with stunning group harmony on the wordless intro to Silent Night itself.

In case it was ever really in doubt, these guys could flat out sannnggg.

No, it’s not a choir rendition, but it conveys a sense of utter serenity as well as anything you’ll hear. With advances in modern technology since then you can easily focus on whichever voice you want and have it stand out in stunning clarity while the other voices seem to ease into the background. But listen to the same passage again and simply focus on a different singer and the same will happen with each of the others as well.

Every voice rings true and clear and they can all can hold your attention effortlessly. The counterpoint leads, the ethereal high tenor of Maithe Marshall and the warm, resonant bass of Ricks, are the most notable of course, but don’t overlook the others at this stage, especially as we know Marshall and Ricks are going to get their stand-alone spots to shine before long.

When Marshall takes the spotlight with the Sleep in heavenly peace line, it’s so delicate, almost like the first few snowflakes to fall on Christmas Eve, and the mood it sets seemingly so fragile that you feel it may break into pieces if you breathe too deeply. That he’s followed by Ricks taking the main verse solo while Maithe floats above him with a wordless aria is chilling, adding an earthly gravitas to an otherwise heavenly rendition.

Musically it doesn’t veer far from the sparse accompaniment most versions featured. There’s an acoustic guitar, a xylophone or vibes adding a sublimely mystical quality, and Howard Biggs’s intermittent piano which introduces just enough of a melodic wrinkle to pull it forward by a century, if only barely. The rest is simply voices – four of the best ever assembled, blending beautifully and providing a harmony bed as soft as the freshly fallen snow at midnight.

Even critics at the time who were outraged over The Ravens’ more radical re-working of White Christmas could hardly claim this heavenly rendition vandalized its message or tarnished the peaceful glow the song has always given off through the ages.

Only at the end when Marshall seems to cut his lines short a bit and Ricks inserts a spoken word “thanks” to the fans, wishing them a Merry Christmas, does the aura of this dissipate just a little. For those wishing to mix it in with a couple hundred other Christmas songs on shuffle play in the 21st Century the ending might break the spell it otherwise casts, but it’s a small price to pay for such a heartfelt soulful version that precedes it and the mood it conveys overall holds up in spite of that, maybe even in part because of those unexpected sentiments thrown in at the end.


Keep in mind that whereas most singers with national impact during those years, such as Crosby whose version of this song remains the third best selling single of all time, and others like him who’d all have ample opportunity to perform live over radio, delivering their songs interspersed with personal messages and warm personal banter with their own speaking voices, in the process forging a connection with listeners which surely helped cement their appeal, The Ravens had no such means with which to do so.

There were no radio programs giving black rock vocal groups access to the airwaves in 1948! In fact there wouldn’t be for quite some time!

Even when rock records began to get more frequent airplay heading into the next decade, eventually coming to dominate radio by the late 1950’s, the artists themselves, especially black rock artists, were not deemed worthy enough to be interviewed on air, letting them speak with their own words rather than merely sing somebody else’s.

Thus to be able to hear Jimmy Ricks get a chance to convey the group’s best wishes to their fans, even if it was on record and not live over the air, must’ve felt like being granted an unexpected sense of status to those it was addressed to who were otherwise never afforded such respect in the rest of their day to day lives.

In Heavenly Peace
That audience was more than grateful for the consideration. As with White Christmas on the other side, The Ravens version of Silent Night broke into the Top Ten on the Race Charts, actually besting that by one spot, #8 to #9, and remained a perennial favorite among early rock audiences for years until eventually its place was usurped by later rock groups who, thanks to an ever widening demographic base, reached more ears and became more well-known historically.

Thus you rarely hear this peerless version today outside of random specialty programs or YouTube mixes made by fans of this specific era and style, which is pretty unforgivable considering its remarkable quality. The song itself, whether sung by Crosby, Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, The Temptations, or a stunning accapella take by Florence Ballard of The Supremes, remains as ubiquitous as ever each December and The Ravens distinctive, yet still respectful, take on it deserves to be heard more.

Society could rest easy in 1948. For all of the worries about how this new breed of artist might trample the standards with their musical uprising, when you get right down to it there’s something universal about Christmas that allows – even encourages – those from different eras and disparate backgrounds to find common ground, even if only for a few short weeks a year. That it does so over a song that was already more than a century old by that point is one of those hoary holiday themes that nevertheless seems to ring true more often than not. Chalk it up to the spirit of the season I guess.

You gotta hand it ‘em though, it didn’t take rock ‘n’ roll long to delve into Christmas songs and right out of the gate The Ravens came up with not just one winner, but two.


(Visit the Artist page of The Ravens for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)