The strange story behind the beloved Christmas carol “In Dulci Jubilo”

It’s the darkest time of a very dark year. I write to you all from the safety of my house and the snugness of my little office, greeting each with the very best wishes of the season. I want to tell a discursive story about one of my favorite Christmas carols; one which includes Christian mysticism and apocrypha, self-mortification, the extraordinary difference between form and spirit, and the everlasting power of music. It begins at the end of the 13th Century.


This is a piece I wrote on Patreon some weeks ago that I’m sharing now. I hope you’ll consider becoming a patron.

Patron Scott Thill wrote me the other day. “Found a song you should write about,” he said. “A bit too perfect for our times.” You better believe I’m gonna write about it.

The song is “Democrat Man” from John Lee Hooker’s 1960 album That’s My Story. Have a listen.

It’s never a bad time to hear John Lee Hooker, for reasons eloquently expressed by The New York Times’ reviewer Robert Shelton in 1961: “Mr. Hooker’s voice is…


On America’s Necromarket

Audrey Hepburn was dead when she did this commercial

I see that Kanye West gave his wife Kim Kardashian a hologram of her late father as a 40th birthday present. Kardashian described it as “a gift from heaven” and “so lifelike!” My feelings on the matter differ significantly: since the time Kim Kardashian was born, we’ve used technology to create a platform for dead celebrity content. It’s ghoulish.

In 1982, country legends Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves appeared together on a duet, which charted at #54 on the Country Singles chart. The accomplishment was all the more extraordinary because both singers had died in separate plane…


The Greatest Blues Song of Them All

This is a sister essay to my piece on Skip James, which can be found here.

L.V. Thomas late in life, already immortal

L.V. Thomas was born in Houston, Texas on August 7, 1891. “I started playing guitar when I was about 11 years old,” she told researcher Robert “Mack” McCormick. “There were blues even back then. It wasn’t so big a part of music as later but there were blues. I can’t hardly name them — I don’t know that those songs had a name. …


Menace as sexy energy.

James “Bubber” Miley and Duke Ellington, ca. 1926

Saxophonist Otto Hardwick described his band mate James Wesley “Bubber” Miley as “a happy-go-lucky, moon-faced, slim, brown boy with laughing eyes and a mouth full of gold teeth.” Born in Aiken, South Carolina in 1903, Miley moved with his family to New York when he was six. At 14, he could play a little trombone and cornet. By 1921, Miley was recording with Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds.

Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” recorded for the Okeh label in August, 1920, was promoted as the first blues record by an African American singer and band. …


Or, The First Time Most White Americans Heard African-American Music

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1875

In 1866, Fisk University was chartered in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the first American college to make a liberal arts education available to “young men and women irrespective of color.”

“It was the period after the American Civil War, and there was such a large question about whether or not the former slaves, the African American, was educatable,” Dr. Reavis Mitchell, professor and chairman of the Fisk history department, said in an interview. …


The Music of Skip James

Skip James in the 1960s

I’m taking the unusual step of publishing an essay originally written for Patreon, so y’all can see what I’m up to over there. If you’d like to read more of my writing about music and other musings, I hope you’ll consider becoming a patron.

The little town of Bentonia is in Yazoo County, Mississippi, near the bottom lands of the Big Black River. It lies not in the famed Mississippi delta, but above it in the Loess Plains. Henry “Son” Stuckey was born on a plantation near Bentonia in the mid-to-late 1890s. Although he never…


A Musical Case for the Genius of Community

“Jumping Jive” by Norman Lewis, 1942

Think of your favorite music scene. Was it the punk wonderland of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s? Or maybe Seattle’s grunge of the 90s? It could be the jazz, blues, and swing that came out of Harlem in the 1930s. As soon as you have a scene in mind, you’ve probably already thought of two or three of your favorite musicians who emerged from it.

We tend to think of scenes as defined by the extraordinary artists they produced. I think it’s the other way around. “There are often places in the…


Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood / Join the mob

The inimitable Mr. Waits

Some art gets dated quickly, like sci-fi movies or disco hits. Other art exists closer to the unmoving hub of culture’s spinning wheel. It can seem prophetic to us, but only because what’s being communicated is never irrelevant; never subject to fad. A good example of the latter is Tom Wait’s “God’s Away On Business,” released 18 years ago but suddenly, bitingly descriptive of our unhappy present situation.

The song starts like an aggro Kurt Weil stomp, with oompah brass and trash can drums. Waits then…


There’s an ugly side to this antebellum scene

“It is a good lesson — though it may often be a hard one — for a man…to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at.”

― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Lady A controversy. It’s one of those play-within-a-play moments in our culture, where the macrocosm is played out in microcosm. For those whose attention has been elsewhere, here’s a primer:

In 2006, Charles Kelley…

Tom Maxwell

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.

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