We always hear a lot this time of year about holiday traditions involving beloved works of art in a variety of media like The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. But for many, it wouldn’t feel like a proper Yuletide without listening to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading his classic poem A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
What makes that holiday tradition particularly interesting are the facts that 1) it would never have happened at all, if not for the persistence of two 22-year-old young women from New York City who tried to sneak backstage at the 92nd Street Y 60 years ago and get the poet’s permission to record him reading his works; and 2) it was largely responsible for the modern success of the audiobook industry, nowadays estimated to rake in between one and two billion dollars annually.
The 1952 recording by Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney that included A Child’s Christmas in Wales was the very first offering in the catalogue of what would become Caedmon Records, the first company to specialize entirely in spoken-word audio recordings. It proved a huge hit, leading to a series of hundreds of LPs – and later, cassettes and CDs – devoted to recordings of serious literary works, in many cases read aloud by the author. The records found a hungry audience in a postwar generation acquiring college degrees via the GI Bill, and in thousands of school libraries thanks to increased aid to education under the LBJ administration.
The voices of such leading lights of 20th-century culture as Tennessee Williams, Archibald MacLeish, Eudora Welty, e. e. cummings, W. H. Auden, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bertrand Russell, Ezra Pound and John Steinbeck were captured for posterity by Caedmon. Thomas Mann read aloud in his original German, Colette, Cocteau, Genet and Camus in French and J. R. R. Tolkien in Elvish. If you had to memorize the introduction to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English back in your schooldays, chances are pretty good that you learned it off a Caedmon recording. But still today, long after the label got bought up by HarperCollins, A Child’s Christmas in Wales remains one of its perennial favorites.
Dylan Thomas may be no longer among us, but the Cragsmoor Historical Society will be presenting a live recitation of his most popular work on Sunday afternoon, December 22 at 3 p.m. at the Stone Church in Cragsmoor. Fittingly, the work will be read by a local poet, Tom Gale, who is also known for his 40-year career as a civil rights activist. Lest non-celebrators of Christmas be excluded from the festivities, local thespian and professional dog trainer Karen Wells will also read a heartwarming Hanukkah fable: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Zlateh the Goat.”
In the Singer tale, a young boy is assigned the task of selling his nanny goat, who is getting too old to give much milk, so that his family will have enough money to celebrate Hanukkah. But on the way to the market, a massive blizzard hits. Boy and goat take shelter inside a haystack and keep each other alive for three days, until the storm finally breaks – after which, of course, Zlateh gets a reprieve from the butcher’s cleaver.
The spoken-word performance is a benefit for the Cragsmoor Historical Society Building Restoration Fund, and admission costs a “suggested donation” of $8. Considered the jewel of the Cragsmoor art colony, with a commanding valley view from the edge of the Shawangunk Ridge, the historic Stone Church will be adorned with holiday decorations including a towering Christmas tree. Hot cider and cookies will be served. This performance is recommended for adults and children age 10 and up.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales/“Zlateh the Goat” live readings, Cragsmoor Historical Society, Stone Church, 280 Henry Road, Cragsmoor; (845) 647-6487, www.cragsmoor.info.