Christmas concerts abound in New York but few transport an audience to the 18th century. Linda Russell & Companie did just that by performing a colonial holiday concert Tuesday at the Fraunces Tavern Museum, playing carols, dance songs, hymns, and rounds.
Alternating between a mountain dulcimer and a hammered dulcimer, Ms. Russell was joined by Margery Cohen on vocals, Abby Newton on cello, and Christa Patton playing drum, flute, and other instruments. Their first two songs were "Ding Dong Merrily" and "I Saw Three Ships." Between songs, Ms. Russell discussed the history of Christmas celebrations in Europe and America. "By the 1600s it was just too merry for the Puritans," she said. Ms. Russell related how in 1659 the Puritans in Massachusetts passed a law penalizing people 5 shillings if they celebrated Christmas outside the church service. She also read from an old law in Connecticut that forbade drinking on Christmas Day.
The quartet played a song about wassailing, an old English Christmas custom that involves drinking ale from large bowls and wishing friends and neighbors well, and includes these lines: "Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree, / With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee."
Ms. Newton played a Scottish tune called "Drunk at Night, Dry in the Morning." Just as the song was about to begin, a cell phone rang in the front row. "That's not quite the tune," she quipped.
Ms. Russell described how Martha Washington "knew how to cook for a crowd." She then described one of Martha's cake recipes that began "Take 40 eggs and 5 pounds of butter."
Ms. Russell and her company also played a song titled "Washington's Resignation," based on his farewell to his troops, which took place at Fraunces Tavern on December 4, 1783.
Ms. Russell told how people celebrated New Year's by welcoming people at "open houses." Even George Washington had an open house, she said, adding, "Those were the days of access to the president."
She also described how some people got upset about New Year's revelers shooting off guns in city streets. As she spoke, honking could be heard on the streets outside of Fraunces Tavern, probably due to increased traffic on account of the transit strike.
The audience laughed when Ms. Russell recited the following toast, "Now drink good liquor but not so that thou canst neither stand nor go" before leading a rendition of the song "Cakes and Ale," composed by Henry Purcell.
She also told of sleigh riding parties where urban folks would proceed from tavern to tavern, interrupting their rides with dancing and drinking.
Those who missed the concert can listen to Ms. Russell's album "Sing We All Merrily: A Colonial Christmas" (Flying Fish Records). It is not often one hears dulcimers nowadays; she said the decline of the dulcimer was precipitated by the advent of railroads, which allowed pianos to be transported anywhere.
The director of Fraunces Tavern Museum, Amy Adamo, served cookies and shrub, a drink consisting of white wine, brandy, lemon juice, sugar, and water. She joked that it's called "shrub" because that's what you fall into after you've had too much to drink.
This is the third year of this colonial concert. Bob Sternerand Barbara Krooss have attended the past two years. "I want the concert to become a tradition," she said. For the past 17 years, she has been studying shakuhachi, a Japanese flute.
Ms. Russell will perform uptown at the Hamilton Grange next month in celebration of Alexander Hamilton's birthday. She told the Knickerbocker she will perform a song called "The Death of Hamilton," with lyrics that are not too favorable toward Aaron Burr, who killed the former treasury secretary in a duel.
The concert wound down with a medley of songs including "Deck the Halls" and "The First Noel" before concluding with "Silent Night" in both German and English.
Ms. Russell's stories kept the audience entertained that evening. What Northerner wouldn't enjoy anecdotes about an eggnog riot at West Point involving Jefferson Davis? At various points, Ms. Russell commented on the songs, pointing out, for example, that drinking songs have simple choruses - "for obvious reasons."
LIKE A ROLLING STONE A reading at KGB Bar on Saturday celebrated the anthology "Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader," edited by Benjamin Hedin. At the book table there were advance pamphlets with excerpts from "The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia," which Continuum will publish next year.
At the event, Dylan archivist Mitch Blank said the Experience Music Project's traveling exhibition, "Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966," may be headed to the Morgan Library next year.