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Music Review: Cootie Stark & Friends Christmas With Cootie

I think if I wander into another store and here some pop star, with a trembling voice they think makes them sound sincere, singing a Christmas song, I might vomit. Not only do they sound awful, they always pick some of the worst excuses for Christmas music that exists. Why people must associate the sickly sentimental with Christmas I don't know, but they do.

Although when you think about it, it makes sense. Advertisers learnt long ago that a message triggering a sentimental reaction would guarantee sales more effectively then anything as messy as real emotions. One of the biggest ironies about Christmas, a supposedly religious holiday, is the lack of religious iconography associated with the holiday anymore.

The closest you'll come to something even remotely religious are pictures of Mom, Pop, and Baby Jesus surrounded by cute farm animals passing themselves off as representations of the birth of the Christ child. Or even worse, one of those angels who are popping up everywhere like hives. But even they are in the minority, because the last thing retailers want people remembering is that it's a religious holiday.

If they did, they might wonder about the need to spend thousands of dollars on material possessions. Especially when celebrating the birthday of the guy who said something about giving up material wealth to enter into the kingdom of heaven, and who had all the merchants and bankers tossed out the Temple for besmirching its holiness with business. All in all it's better that people see pictures of dogs in red bow and red cheeked children playing in the snow, Jesus was right, religion and sales don't mix.
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All the more reason then to heap blessings upon the people at the Music Makers Relief Foundation for providing some antidote to that attitude with the release of the CD Christmas With Cootie. Cootie Stark is one of the many old time Blues singers from the South who had their careers resuscitated by the Foundation as part of their programming for assisting them financially. For decades, he had earned his living as a street performer, but through his association with Music Makers, he began a successful second career on touring and performing.

A number of the men and women who are produced by the Music Makers label, no longer have any family, and the studio in Hillsborough North Carolina where they record and jam, has become their home. So, in 2005 when Cootie turned up for Christmas it was no surprise that the guys in the neighbourhood would drop by to wish him well and to celebrate Christmas with their extended family.

It was only natural that they would sing a bunch of songs together, and since they were hanging out in a recording studio, it wasn't that much of a stretch to set up some microphones and flip a couple of switches so they could make a record of the event. What's ended up on CD is a mix of Christmas and gospel music making it sound like you keep moving back and forth between a revival meeting and a family Christmas party.

Although such great singers and players like John Dee Holman, Cool John Ferguson, Macavine Hayes, Whistlin' Britches Thompson, and Captain Luke all showed up for the party, it's Cootie the action is centred around. With a voice permanently hoarse from singing on the streets in all kinds of weather, and imbibing who knows what over the years, no one is ever going to accuse Cootie of sounding saccharine sweet. But that doesn't prevent him and his friends from singing versions of "Silent Night" that send shivers up your spine because the emotions are so real.

Revival meetings and Gospel music of that type make no concessions, or apologies. They are Christian songs for Christian people sung with a passion and belief that's far too in your face for mass-market consumption. This isn't the music of some highly polished choir sanitized for consumption on Oprah where everyone is stepin' and fetchin', but the real thing as it's been sung in clapboard churches throughout the South for over a hundred years.
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Even with just the group of them sitting around the studio there's the exhortations to "Let me hear you say amen" happening in a way that sounds like second nature to these men. None of them are preachers, in the sense of being ordained ministers by any church, but I'm thinking you'd be hard pressed to find much difference between how Cootie and his friends performed "My Lord Died On The Cross" and how it would be sung in a church with a minister leading the way.

Can you imagine going into a store around this time of year and even hearing them playing a song with the title "My Lord Died On The Cross"? Now I'm not saying that I'm particularly enamoured of the song myself, but I can respect and admire the passion that has gone into recording and singing that song far more then whatever is being performed by the generic pop singer being piped into stores these days.

Of course it's not all just serious "gospel hour" on Christmas With Cootie. You can't put that collection of people together without some silliness and good times happening. Then there's the last track on the album. A recording made of Guitar Gabriel back in 1994 singing "Let's Have Christmas Together for which Tim Duffy has mixed down with some newer tracks as accompaniment. It's only fitting that Gabriel shows up here like a benign spirit of Christmases gone by, as it was through him that this "family" was brought together under this roof.

Gabriel died before the foundation had really begun to take off, but it was through him that Tim Duffy was introduced to all the people who appear on this recording. Shortly after this recording was made Cootie Stark left the world as well, meaning the Christmas get-together's at Hillsborough are going to be a bit quieter and smaller from now on. These recordings of Tim Duffy's become even more special when you consider them in light of how each year the possibility exists that one of those voices won't be around come next year.

For all of you, Christian and non-Christian alike, who are heartily sick of the pap that passes for music these days at Christmas Christmas With Cootie isn't a complete cure, but it doesn't hurt. Real music sung by real people goes a long way to removing a great deal of the bad taste surrounding this time of year. Boycotting spending more then $25.00 on Christmas presents, per family would do the rest, but that's not going to happen so let's be grateful for the blessings we do get.

On that note – why not spend that $25.00 at Music Makers and buy someone you love Cootie Stark and his friends for Christmas. Not only is it a great gift, you get the satisfaction of knowing you've done your part to preserve an endangered species – real people singing real music. It would also be a fine way to show some appreciation for the work of Tim and Denise Duffy and all the other people who bring us the gift of the Music Maker Relief Fund.

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