Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Simon Sisters Sing

Here's something that I bet wasn't on your Christmas playlist: Carly and Lucy Simon, as the Simon Sisters, singing Lucy's setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Christmas Bells."

It's from a very unusual children's album first released in 1973. This is one that I did not have growing up, but when I was a child I once heard one of the songs on it, Lucy Simon's setting of William Blake's poem "The Lamb," at a neighbor's house, and never forgot its haunting, chant-like melody (unfortunately, there's no Youtube of it, but you can listen to an excerpt on Amazon), in spite of the fact that I never heard it again and didn't know whose song it was. Then one day last year the Daedalus Books catalogue came in the mail -- I'm a hopeless addict -- and I saw the Simon Sisters' re-released CD advertised in it, with a little blurb describing some of the songs, one of which was a setting of Blake's poem. Could this be the song? I took a chance and ordered the CD, and yes, it was.

The album is outstanding. Lucy, who wrote all the music, was long overshadowed by her younger sister, but would later gain recognition as the composer of the Broadway musical The Secret Garden. Although the songs on the album are arranged for the full gamut of instruments used in 1960s pop to suggest whimsy and the fantastical -- flute, organ, glockenspiel -- the squareness of the sisters' singing has a kind of rectitude to it -- indeed, almost an austere quality, echoed in this undated performance from the "Hootenanny" television show:

Aren't they beautiful, too? Their older sister, Joanna, was also a singer, a mezzo-soprano who had a moderately big career in opera (yes, that's what most big careers in opera look like -- I had never heard of her, either).

Everything about the Simon Sisters, from their singing to their dresses to the songs themselves, evokes a more innocent time, a kind of lost paradise that cannot ever have really existed.


Wendy said...

I did grow up with this album. Great stuff!

Pentimento said...

Wendy, that is awesome. We had Pete Seeger's Folk Songs for Children but everything else was much more staid. I'm loving it now, though.