Brightest and Best
Many years ago, I came into possession of a vinyl LP entitled “Sweet Rivers” from Jean Ritchie. The album was themed to present songs from her sacred traditions from what they called in the Kentucky Mountains, “the Old Regular” Baptist church. On that album, Jean presented her Ritchie family version of the song “Brightest and Best.”
The song’s history and reach is vast – its origins date back to its authorship as a Christian hymn in 1811 by the Anglican Bishop Reginald Heber, to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night, celebrated every year on January 6. It can be found in the Southern Harmony collection and is known also as Brightest and Best of the Suns of the Morning or Star in the East. This date was known as “old Christmas” to the mountain folk who immigrated into the southern Appalachians from England, Ireland and Scotland.
Jean Ritchie wrote in her liner notes to the album that of all the hundreds of songs she knew in her life, this one may have been her favorite, and I can understand why. For the Ritchie family, the song held a special place, and in her book “Singing Family of the Cumberlands,” Jean’s oldest sister May explains:
“When I was a very little girl nobody in the country round really celebrated Christmas. It was more of a religious time then, and it fell on the sixth of January. Old Christmas we call it now. On Old Christmas Eve we’d sit ‘fore the fire and Mom and Dad and Granny [Katty] would tell us about the baby Jesus born in a stable on this night, and they’d say that if we’d go out at midnight, we’d see the old elderberry bush blooming in the fence corner right in the snow, and that if we peeped in through a chink in our stable we’d see the cow and the old mule kneeling down-paying honor to the little King of Kings. Then Granny would sing us her Christmas carol in the old mountain tune.”
Jean recorded the song on many albums, Sweet Rivers being one, and also Kentucky Christmas. I found it on her Carols for All Seasons.
Here is my version from 2002, featuring Kenny Kosek on fiddle
BRIGHTEST AND BEST
Hail the blest morn when the great Mediator,
Down from the regions of glory descend.
Shepherds go worship the babe in the manger,
Lo for a guard the bright angels attend.
Brightest and Best of the suns of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid,
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
Cold on his cradle the dew-drops are shining,
Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall.
Angels adore him, in slumber reclining,
Maker and monarch, and savior of all.
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favor secure.
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
Now for another version of the song, here is an absolutely beautiful performance by Dan Schatz, a Ritchie scholar and musician, who recorded this video of “Brightest and Best” a few years ago. His lyrics are slightly different than the ones above, but there are lots of other verses out there for the taking, and Dan has availed himself of them for his version.
Dan writes the following about his recording:
“Brightest and Best” is an old carol especially popular in Eastern Kentucky. Like many people, I learned it from Jean Ritchie, and I was honored to perform it with her son Jon Pickow along with Susie Glaze and Kenny Kosek while we were on tour together. The song is at least 200 years old, and was passed down by the Ritchies and others for generations. The version I sing is by and large Jean’s, although I did choose one line from a different variant. Like Jean, I always think of it as “Brightest and best of the suns of the morning,” which makes far more sense than the way it’s often rendered. I love this carol for its poetry, haunting melody, and gentle message of justice.
This was recorded and filmed in the sanctuary of the Unitarian Congregation of West Chester for our online Christmas Eve service this year, but I thought I’d share it ahead of time. The instrument I’m playing is a rare prototype guitar built by master luthier Nick Apollonio (www.nikosapollonio.com), patterned after a 17th century cittern called an “English guittar.”
May the joys of the season reach your heart and may you feel the Brightest and Best there to guide you.
Happy holidays and Merry Christmas everyone, and as always, thanks for reading! Keep in touch with blog post ideas or just to say hey! You can email me HERE.
Love and Blessings,
Award-winning recording artist, Broadway singer, journalist, educator and critically-acclaimed powerhouse vocalist, Susie Glaze has been called “one of the most beautiful voices in bluegrass and folk music today” by Roz Larman of KPFK’s Folk Scene. LA Weekly voted her ensemble Best New Folk in their Best of LA Weekly for 2019, calling Susie “an incomparable vocalist.” “A flat out superb vocalist… Glaze delivers warm, amber-toned vocals that explore the psychic depth of a lyric with deft acuity and technical perfection.” As an educator, Susie has lectured at USC Thornton School of Music and Cal State Northridge on “Balladry to Bluegrass,” illuminating the historical path of ancient folk forms in the United Kingdom to the United States via immigration into the mountains of Appalachia. Susie has taught workshops since 2018 at California music camps RiverTunes and Vocáli Voice Camp. She is a current specialist in performance and historian on the work of American folk music icon, Jean Ritchie. Susie now offers private voice coaching online via the Zoom platform. www.susieglaze.com
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Brightest and Best