A holiday compilation with a difference, this assembles a couple dozen Christmas-themed recordings from 1917-1959 that represent roots music of all stripes -- blues, gospel, early jazz, early country, Appalachian folk, and even some ethnic sounds of Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Italy, and Ukraine. There are some pretty famous names here, like Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, and Lightnin' Hopkins, as well as some artists who are not as famous but still pretty renowned, like Rev. J.M. Gates, Buell Kazee, and the Maddox Brothers & Rose. Yet as was the case on the Dust-to-Digital label's extraordinary six-CD box set of 1902-1960 spirituals, Goodbye, Babylon, there are a host of names here that will be known almost exclusively to serious old-time music collectors. That in itself makes this a pretty interesting and offbeat Christmas anthology. But even if you care nothing for rare record values, it's certainly rawer, more heartfelt, and just more musically interesting than the vast majority of what you'll find in the holiday bin. It's also a reminder of a time when Christmas discs could be relatively joyful and sincere expressions of religion and merrymaking, rather than just excuses to make a quick buck by cashing in on the time of the season. It makes for superior roots music listening whether you're in the holiday spirit or not, but some of the better tracks to keep an ear out for include the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers' jovial Dixieland jazz-style "Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn," with its thrilling high female background vocal swoops; Leadbelly's highly rhythmic, infectiously joyous "Christmas Is A-Coming"; the exuberant early calypso of Lord Executor's "Christmas Is a Joyful Day"; the shuffling flamenco-like verve of Los Jibaros' "Décimas de Nacimiento"; and the electric blues of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Happy New Year," which verges on rock & roll. Being a single-CD compilation, the packaging isn't as elaborate as other Dust-to-Digital productions like Goodbye, Babylon, but it's typically thoughtful, with a Christmas card-sized booklet of liner notes, coaster, and postcard. Note, also, how the tracks are sequenced almost like a chronological celebration of holiday themes, starting with Vera Hall Ward's "The Last Month of the Year," moving on through Leadbelly's "Christmas Is A-Coming" and Kansas City Kitty's "Christmas Morning Blues," and wrapping up with Hopkins' "Happy New Year." This album deserves a four-star rating for its general musical value; judged by the standards of Christmas/holiday releases, it easily rates a full five stars.
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AllMusic Review by Richie Unterberger