In the exploration of my Christmas CD archive this fall, an ongoing project, I have found myself pleasantly surprised many times. One of those is with the New Christy Minstrels.
A folk group founded by Randy Sparks, the Christies had a revolving door of membership. At various times the Minstrels included such luminaries as Barry McGuire, Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, Gene Clark (later of the Byrds), and Jerry Yester (later of the Association). Their biggest pop hits were “Green, Green,” which features McGuire on lead vocal, and “Today,” a beautiful ballad with Sparks on lead.
During their most popular years in the mid-1960s, they recorded two Christmas albums and several other holiday songs that first appeared on tire-store Christmas albums. Of their two Christmas albums, the first one, Merry Christmas!, is the better one. On it, the Christies were arguably at their best. The opening track is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 4.
The gospel song “Twelve Gates to the City,” first recorded by the Reverend Gary Davis and later by artists as varied as the Weavers, the Davis Sisters (the gospel group, not the 1950s country duo), Ralph Stanley and Carly Simon, served as the source for “Beautiful City.” The original song was inspired by the Bible’s Book of Revelation, chapter 21, verses 12 and 13, in which the prophet described his vision of the new Jerusalem as having twelve gates, three in each basic direction of the compass. Sparks and arranger Nick Woods kept the basic structure of the song the same, but changed the city in question to Bethlehem and retold the Christmas story in the new lyrics.
When I was auditioning my CD of the complete Christmas works of the New Christy Minstrels, I heard “Beautiful City” coming through my headphones – and I was floored. Within seconds, I was singing along, alternately snapping my fingers and clapping my hands along. How had I missed this one all these years? When it was over, I knew that it would be a Christmas Song of the Day at some point this year. Enjoy the Christies at their 1963 peak.