Today, just five days before Christmas, U.S. President Barack Obama held a ceremony to conclude the Iraq War. But battles sometimes come to a standstill even without official sanction, as John McCutcheon sang about on his 1984 album Winter Solstice.

German soldiers celebrate Christmas during World War I

Christmas 1914: Groups of German and British soldiers living in cold, muddy trenches in France struck up an unofficial armistice. Lonely and far away from home, these young men met spontaneously in the “No Man’s Land” between the trenches to sing carols, play football, and toast the holiday together.

American folk musician John McCutcheon captured this event on his album Winter Solstice, released on Rounder Records in 1984. Listening to McCutcheon’s song “Christmas in the Trenches,” the beautiful simplicity of the 1914 truce still hits home a century later.

‘There’s someone coming towards us!’ the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.
Full lyrics

McCutcheon says that he first heard the armistice story from an unassuming janitor backstage at a concert decades ago. “Christmas in the Trenches” has become a beloved holiday classic, and it’s one of McCutcheon’s most well-known songs.

The entire album deserves being listened to each holiday season, and it’s no wonder after three decades that it still appears on “must listen” Christmas music lists.

McCutcheon’s delicate hammer dulcimer both kindles the warmth of being inside on a late December afternoon as well as conjures the crisp chill of the days leading up to the solstice. He was joined on the recording by members of the Washington Bach Consort and of Paul Reisler’s folk ensemble Trapezoid.

Winter Solstice features songs as diverse as “Willie’s Waltz,” a melody written for McCutcheon’s oldest son, and the popular Hebrew love song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (Evening of Lilies).

As our own war concludes and we move into the holiday season, the lessons of the 1914 Christmas armistice are well worth remembering: peace can be spontaneous and the truest kind is often unofficial.

As McCutcheon sang on Winter Solstice: “The walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war, had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.”

Full Winter Solstice track list

1. Christmas Day Ida Moarnin/Un Flambeau Jeanette Isabella

2. Erev Shel Shoshanim

3. Willie’s Waltz

4. Christmas In The Trenches

5. Star In The East

6. Old Christmas Morning/Breaking Up Christmas

7. Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head

8. For Unto Us A Child Is Born

9. Huron Carol

10. Detroit, December

11. Down In Yon Forest/New Year’s Eve


Raga? It’s one of the building blocks of Indian classical music, but it’s also one of the world’s hardest musical terms to define. In the simplest sense, “raga” means “color,” and consists of a collection of notes that musicians build a song around. Toronto-based lightsweetcrude’s debut album Listen to the Colour proves that “raga” doesn’t require a neat definition.

Lightsweetcrude plays with and creates new shades of traditional ragas on Listen to the Colour, which released in October 2011. Producer and keyboardist Jason Steidman envisioned the album, and brought together the ensemble’s team of talented artists. Before launching the project, Steidman studied Indian classical music for several years—even studying harmonium in order to learn the feel of the music.


Listen to the Colour draws on numerous other musical influences, including funk, jazz, and surf rock. On the track “Ahir/Now,” guitarist Fareed Haque weaves the fabric of the melody before the group launches fully into the song. Complete with handclaps and thumping piano and drums, “Ahir” evokes the spirit of Dick Dale’s famous “Misirlou.”

Now watch this clip of santour maestro Shivkumar Sharma perform raga Ahir Bhairav, with Zakir Hussain on tabla. “Ahir” is based on this very same raga, and listening to Sharma’s rendition it’s not hard to imagine the guitar layered over the santour.

“Raga Ahir Bhairav”

“A Call to You, Piloo”

On “A Call to You, Piloo,” Rez Abassi’s electric sitar bridges a combination of guitar, bass, drums, and organ with the more traditional classical instruments bansuri and tabla. It’s a mixture of jazz and funk, for sure, but it’s also built upon raga Piloo (Pilu), performed here with more “standard” classical form by sitarist Shahid Parvez Khan.

“Raga Piloo” 

Whether you’re a fan of classical Indian music or just curious about it, you’ll enjoy exploring the many shades of “raga” with lightsweetcrude.


Magenta blossoms, Havana, August 2010. (Flickr/zrm35)

Sometimes the spirit of an instrument, melody, or voice completely catches hold of you. The flamenco term “duende” describes it best: when the music’s sound is so authentic that it reaches out and possesses the listener.

This happened to me yesterday, when I cooked dinner and listened to Les Sessions Cubaines (The Cuban Sessions) by Montreal singer-songwriter Philémon Bergeron-Langlois. I stopped frequently while peeling potatoes and almost forgot to add salt.

The album, released in May 2010, is this week’s feature on Bandcamp by reviewer Andrew Dubber. He deftly identifies the power behind Bergeron-Langlois’ music:

…Whether you understand French is irrelevant, as the emotional heft of this album transcends barriers of language. Yet this is not at all a sentimental record. This is simply emotion, raw and unrefined.

As the album’s name suggests it was recorded in Cuba, at no less than EGREM Studios of Buena Vista Social Club fame. Watching this video of Bergeron-Langlois’ recording “Vaincre l’automne” (“Overcoming the Autumn”) in Havana brings the “duende” of the music home.

“Vaincre l’automne”

Philemon Chante “Vaincre l’automne” (Studio Egrem) from Audiogram on Vimeo.