Cooper’s Gap

Cooper's Gap Hidden Language

Jay walks amongst the ancient trees of Rothrock State Forest to explore his, and our, relationship with wilderness.

​An automobile drives along a paved rural road.

JAY: Okay, we’re about to hit one of my favorite parts of the trip. Wait for it…

The automobile continues as the paved road abruptly turns to gravel and dirt.

JAY: This narrow mountain road, sprinkled with gravel and rocks, leads my cousin Travis and me to Cooper’s Gap for a weekend at our—whoa, look out.

The automobile stops so that a car driving the opposite can pass.

JAY: For most of this road, if you encounter someone going in the opposite direction, one of you will need to find a spot to pullover so that the other can slowly squeeze past. Okay, there we go.

Travis and Jay speed up again and the car continues along the gravel.

JAY: We’re headed into Rothrock State Forest, into the tree-covered heart of Central Pennsylvania, for a weekend at the camp, a hunting cabin that my uncle has owned since the late 1970’s. We’ve already lost cell service—that drops once you leave the paved road behind. We’ll have no electricity or running water for the next three days.

We will watch the midsummer twilight not fade to dark until nearly ten o’clock. We’ll track the lovely song of a whippoorwill as it bounces around the empty forest at night. We’ll hear the far-off sound of a screech owl and recall how, when we were kids, we first learned the call of an owl by repeating “Who cooks for you?” Over our morning coffee, we’ll first hear and then spot a porcupine waddling through a pine thicket and remember that, for the longest time, we wrongly believed that the rodent could launch its quills at range.

But those things are yet to come. For now, we lower the windows, breathe in that clean mountain air, and turn up the radio. It’ll be all 80s and 90s country music this weekend, the same twangers and bangers my cousins and I listened to when we first started spending weekends at the camp. It was here, under the shade of white pines and balsam firs, amongst the stands of mountain laurel and rhododendron, that I fell in love with the wild.

Jay inhales deeply.

Ah, it feels so good to be back in Cooper’s Gap.

Something About A Mountain

Something About A Mountain Hidden Language

Jay takes us along on a climb up a mountain in search of nature, solitude, and perspective.

JAY is walking upon a gravel trail.

We Ants Can be Friends” by Lobo Loco plays

JAY: It’s the first day of March. I should be thinking about spring, about the buds that will soon appear on the trees and the daffodils that will splash yellow on the brown winter landscape. I’ve already seen two tell-tale signs of spring: both red-winged blackbirds and the robins have returned. And I’ve heard the sounds of spring as well: high up in the sky, hidden in the mountain fog and clouds, flocks of geese honk on their journey back north.

But it’s hard to clear my head today, hard to think about anything except Ukraine. I have no new words, no new thoughts about this unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation that you haven’t already heard. You’ve surely read some of the takes on social media, where last year’s arm-chair epidemiologists are suddenly this year’s foreign policy experts.

JAY walks faster, breathing gets harder… 

JAY: And this morning, the International Panel on Climate Change released their latest report. Hundreds of international scientists reviewed over 34,000 academic articles and concluded that we are changing the climate faster than we can adapt. The last line of the report reads: “The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to the human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

JAY stops walking and sighs.

JAY: Sorry, sorry. Look, you know all of this, too. Maybe you, just like me,  struggle to clear your head of the simultaneous crises that envelope our world. But that’s why you’re out here with me today. We’re going up a mountain together. Because there’s something about a mountain, something about how it lifts us above the world below and, in turn, helps us refocus. So stretch your legs, put on your shoes. We’ve got some wandering to do.

Good Words

Good Words Hidden Language

What was your earliest lesson about the power of words? 

YOUNG SCOTT, at six years old, SKIPS DOWN a SIDEWALK along his grade school playground, DRAGGING A STICK along a CHAIN LINK FENCE. HE sees his GRANDPA waiting for him up ahead and RUNS to him.

SCOTT: My grade school, Hillcrest Elementary, was just a few blocks down from my house, my grandparents’ house — where I was once again living. Grandpa walked down every afternoon to walk me back home. I liked to drag sticks across the chain link fence as I ran up to him. And on this day, he had news. 

YOUNG SCOTT: Is he here yet? Is he here yet?

SCOTT: My little brother, Mike, had been born and had come home.   

YOUNG SCOTT RUNS up ahead along the street.


SCOTT: I was aware my mom was in the hospital having a baby and this was a time — in the mid 1970s — when hospitals would keep you beyond the current standard of one day after having a baby. It seems like my little brother was never going to come home. But, today, during the second week of September 1976, he did.

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A Clear and Just Thing

Cooper's Gap Hidden Language

Jay walks amongst the ancient trees of Rothrock State Forest to explore his, and our, relationship with wilderness.

Music: “Sunset” by Kai Engle

JAY: Charles Bowden is credited as one of the first journalists to predict that Mexico’s brutal drug wars would wash across the desert landscape and spill into America. He authored four books about Juarez, the cartels, and the human cost of the war on drugs. He also wrote books about the deserts outside of Tucson, Arizona, the Colorado Plateau, blood orchids, and coyotes.

Bowden once told a reporter from The Guardian this: “My great pleasure is to go into the wilderness, get myself lost under the big sky out there, and I’ve written books full of words trying to capture that feeling and describe that landscape.”

He thrived in liminal spaces, in both the literal and metaphorical sense. He had an uncanny ability to tell a truth that was sometimes far from pleasant. His 1998 Harper’s essay “Torch Song” asks us to question what, if anything, makes an average man different from those we define as criminals. His graphic descriptions of heinous crimes and thoughts chilled my blood but he spelunked into the darkness of the human condition with such vivid, clear prose. I couldn’t stop reading.

Bowden was a place-based writer–in fact, he was a disciple of naturalist, advocate, and writer Edward Abbey. Bowden, like his mentor, seemingly allowed nature to set his internal moral compass. And that’s why I’m thinking about him today. I’ve been wondering how the first place I ever knew—Central Pennsylvania—calibrated how I think and view these United States of America. Because, well, these United States of America don’t seem all that united at the moment.

Bowden died in 2014 but his work endures, as do several YouTube interviews. In one of those videos, he smokes unfiltered cigarettes and fiercely holds onto his coffee cup. Despite a cantankerous and blunt persona, he’s generous and honest as he answers questions about writing and living.

“Americans think they can change their life. Americans think, ‘I’ll move here and be a different person.’ Americans are on a false quest. The only voyage of discovery is to go back where you started. It isn’t to flee something. It’s to face something and comprehend it.”

Capital Standards

Capital Standards Hidden Language

SCOTT: Back in 1999, I was writing and editing and photographing and eventing for a nonprofit in Chicago. We served people with disabilities throughout the city, helping them with housing and employment and counseling and other needs. My job was to produce a lot of public relations material — and this was before everything went digital, so we were still producing mainly print-based stuff: trifold brochures, annual reports, newsletters that were mailed to stakeholders. Not really any social media at the time. I would do everything from taking pictures and writing captions for those pictures to interviewing staffers and clients — that’s what we called the people we served: clients — and writing copy for stories and then designing and laying out publications for the copy. Typical jack-of-all-trades for a two-person department.

One of the things I did as well was to write press releases for the various media outlets across the city: newspapers, magazines, radio, TV. Now, if you know anything about writing for the media, even if it’s just reading news stories, let’s say — and I know there’s a lot of contention about whether we read like we used to or not; we certainly don’t — but if you pay attention to how a news story is written, you can pick out certain stylistic devices that journalists use. The standard bearer is the Associated Press style guide.

In 2020, the AP released its 55th edition, so it’s been around for a while — since the mid-1800s. And there is, thankfully, a helpful online version, so the AP can update its writing standards more frequently, as we see cultural, political, social aspects of the world moving so much faster now, forcing language to evolve much more quickly.  

You use the style guide like a dictionary or an encyclopedia. The guide gives suggestions and guidance on things like using punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. It provides guidance on larger topics such as reporting about COVID-19. The word COVID, for example, should be all-capped; that is, every letter — C-O-V-I-D — is capitalized. And it’s preferable to write “COVID-19” when writing about the virus, but you can use simply “COVID” when you need to shorten the term for space, such as in headlines.

The AP also guides writers on how to use inclusive language when writing about race, gender, sexuality, disability, and other cultural issues. 

Working for an organization advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, I paid particular attention to the disability section of the guide. This was back at the end of the last century, in the late 1990s, when we had to rely on a print version of the AP. And their guidance sometimes didn’t quite gel with our own standards of writing. We — and many in the disability community — had our own ideas about how we should be writing about disability culture. The pages of the Associated Press style guide had their own standards. Sometimes those two standards — ours and theirs — agreed. Many times not. And we fought to be heard. We fought for our own clients to be heard.

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Shoot Out the Rain

Shoot Out the Rain Hidden Language

Jay tells us about concussionism, a once widely held belief that we might literally shoot rain from the sky. If that mix of unwarranted optimism and alarming violence seems perfectly American, well, you’re right. But how might that relate to our response to climate change?

MUSIC: Rain and Thunderstorm at Lallgarh Palace, Bikaner by Samuel Corwin

MUSIC: Cold Summer Landscape by Blear Moon

JAY: On June 20, 1864, The Compiler, a newspaper out of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, published an article called “Storms After Battle” which noted an odd pattern: strong rain and thunderstorms almost always followed Civil War battles. The Compiler looked back at three years of a brutal war to prove, anecdotally of course, that the theory was true: brutal clashes at New Market, Malvern Hill, Shiloh, both meetings at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Murfreesboro, and Gettysburg were all followed by torrential storms.

Alfred R. Waud, January 21, 1863,  Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

The French, too, had noticed something similar during the Napoleonic Wars fifty years prior. The French Academy of Science studied the phenomena and, lacking any hard evidence as to why, simply declared that yes, storms usually followed massive battles.

The belief that the energy produced by an extreme, violent combustion would ascend into the sky and return as precipitation was then commonplace. There are stories of American farm communities stockpiling brush and wood. Then, during periods of drought, they lit the whole heap ablaze and prayed that their fire would replicate whatever metaphysical force clashing armies sent into the air and bring rain.

Three Characters in Search of a Story

Three Characters in Search of a Story Hidden Language

Scott drills down into origin stories that don’t wash.

SCOTT: The newspapers don’t say if James and Francis ever crossed paths. They might’ve. James was what they called a rate setter at the time. He’d been a businessman, a city councilor, a state rep. Francis wasn’t old enough to have such experience, but his service ribbon might tell us otherwise. They had lived in the Boston area, just a hop, skip, and a jump from each other; later, James, the rate setter, moved from the Roxbury area of Boston downstate to Halifax. Francis, the sergeant, came back home after the war to Everett, just north of Boston. So, they might’ve met; regardless, there were some newspaper accounts at the time — this  toward the end of 1946 — those stories made some connections between the two men. If only in name.


SCOTT: You’re listening to Hidden Language — a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Scott Lunsford.

JAY: And I’m Jay Varner. In this episode, Scott chalks up some time to consider some origin stories that don’t wash.


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In Defense of Christmas Music

In Defense of Christmas Music Hidden Language

Jay presents an argument in defense of Christmas music that just might make you reconsider how you view the genre. Check out the expanded Spotify playlist accompanying this playlist as well.

Winter Walk” by Podington Bear plays

Jay: It’s been fourteen years since my buddy Patrick Culliton and I launched a music blog called 77 Santas. We took a slant-angle view on Christmas and holiday-themed music, magnifying the overlooked, polishing rare gems, and recontextualizing songs that we’ve heard all of our lives but have maybe never explicitly connected with the season.

By and large, the music we shared on 77 Santas was secular. We weren’t theologians, merely audiophiles engaged in that perpetual attempt to define exactly what makes a song good or, at the very least, worth listening to. Sometimes that included religious songs–”O Holy Night” is a beautiful piece of music, it’s just that we would highlight weirdo guitar virtuoso John Fahey’s version over something antiseptic like Josh Groban.

We loved to celebrate esoteric oddities. Our blog’s name came from the Gayla Peevey song “77 Santas.” It’s lesser known than her 1953 classic “I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas,” a bouncy novelty tune where little Gayla lobbies for a real, live hippo to “play with and enjoy” on Christmas morning.

Peevey was 12 years old in 1955, the year she recorded “77 Santas.” We loved how the song captured that bittersweet moment when a child starts piecing together the inconsistencies in those stories about Santa Claus and reindeer and chimneys and letters to the North Pole… 

JAY: Do all of these Santas have sleighs? Can they all come down the chimney at the same time? What happens if all 77 leave muddy boot prints around the tree? 

None of it dents her faith in Christmas–in fact, it’s the opposite. How could the apparent multiplication of Santa be anything short of a miracle? Her mom and dad had only one Santa when they were young. Little Gayla saw 77 Santas in a single day. Something about that always made me smile.

Ice Skating” by Borrtex plays

At its peak, 77 Santas drew nearly 10,000 unique international visitors a day. We somehow gained enough traction to catch the interest of a Financial Times reporter who interviewed us for a story about Christmas music collectors and archivists.

Outside of our internet bubble, it was a different story. Occasionally we’d find someone who sincerely dug the music. Many of our friends, however, looked at us with skepticism and curiosity, uncertain if this love of Christmas music was serious or ironic or just weird.

Of course, there were plenty of people who instinctively proclaimed how much they truly hated the genre. And, look, from a certain musical viewpoint, I get why. I do. We all have our list of “Can’t Stand to Ever Hear It Again” holiday songs. I’m no different. If I hear “Wonderful Christmas Time” ever again, I may grab the closest metal implement and start looking for an electrical outlet. And the trite, saccharine excess of “Christmas Shoes” spikes my sugar and blood pressure to dangerous levels. And you haven’t lived until you’re stuck in a long line at some big box store on Christmas Eve while the radio plays anything by the uniformly terrible Mannheim Steamroller.

It’s fun to dunk on the truly bad holiday music but this is also the season of love, generosity, joy, and light. And so, I now present, a defense of Christmas music.


JAY: You’re listening to “Hidden Language,” a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Jay Varner.

SCOTT: And I’m Scott Lunsford. Today, Jay presents an argument in defense of Christmas music that just might make you reconsider how you view the genre.

JAY: As we begin our case, I want to give you a helpful framework from music producer Mark Ronson. In his 2014 TEDtalk, Ronson argues that the practice of sampling has forever transformed our musical landscape.

“We live in the post-sampling era. We take the things that we love and we build on them. That’s just how it goes. And when we really add something significant and original and we merge our musical journey with this, then we have a chance to be a part of the evolution of that music that we love and be linked with it once it becomes something new again.”

Music is literature, and there is often a centuries-long dialogue swirling about some of our favorite songs. Different forms, styles, and genres converse with each other, creating something unique. So, let’s examine our first song with this lens.

The hopeful, beautifully melodic “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is one of the oldest holiday tunes in existence. This traditional English carol likely originated sometime in the sixteenth century in response to 15th century church music, which was characteristically dark and gloomy and probably in Latin. Maybe that is what makes it one of the most malleable of all carols? By examining the song’s adaptability, we get a sense of that evolution Ronson talks about. I love how each of these versions evokes a distinct time and place. We recognize the vibe each of these songs gives, we’ve just never heard it in a Christmas hymn before.

Let’s start with the Los Angeles-based band The Jigsaw Seen. Their 1989 version answers that age-old question of what would happen if The Rolling Stones had performed “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” as the B-side to “Paint It Black.” (NOTE: The episode mistakenly credited the song as dating from 2004).

Sitar, driving tempo, crunchy guitar. By all accounts, these things should not exist within the confines of a deeply religious Christmas song—but that they do exist makes this one of the most propulsive and surprising versions that you’re likely to hear.

If rock and/or roll aren’t your things, there’s The Torero Band, a group of British musicians who aped 1960’s favorites Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. They spice up their version with horns, xylophone, and a swinging groove.

The next version asks us to imagine Santa riding the waves on the California coast. Los Straitjackets delivers a surf-rock take that steals the iconic bass riff from The Chantays instrumental 60’s classic “Pipeline.”

Finally, Hoax Funeral might provide us with the most traditionally-minded version, but the production is drenched in a gloomy minor-key reverb. Tidings of comfort and joy have never sounded so foreboding.

Something about that driving but simple drumbeat reminds that lurking on the horizon is another year of pushing through daily life amidst a myriad of global crises. I know, I know–let nothing you dismay. Well, let’s call this section of the episode “In the Bleak Midwinter” because one of the things I seek out most in Christmas music is misery. For as joyful as Christmas songs can be, I have always been drawn to those that seek to capture the enduring sadness of the holiday season. 

I realize this sounds bizarre, maybe even antithetical to a season of goodwill. But many people struggle mightily this time of the year. Music can serve as a commiseration with or as a balm to fit against our seasonal heartache.

It doesn’t get more “feel bad” than The Everly Brothers warning that “Christmas Eve Can Kill You.” A steel-guitar wails as we meet our narrator, a drifter half-remembering past Christmases while he hitchhikes along a cold wintry highway. Sure, there’s a laundry-list of winter imagery that gets checked off throughout the song, but there’s also a glorious melodrama that swells down the homestretch.

This song was included on the pair’s 1972 album Stories We Could Tell and is noteworthy as the only holiday track. The Everly’s had released a true-blue, uber-traditional Christmas album with the Boys Town Choir back in 1962. It’s, you know, what you’d expect–and I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just rooted in the sunny-eyed innocence of the early 60s.

Nearly everything had changed ten years later. The world had experienced seismic shifts during that time: political assassinations, the Vietnam War, race riots. No wonder there’s no hope to be found on “Christmas Eve Can Kill You.” Cars speed past the narrator–their drivers are so indifferent that they don’t even bother to slow down. And maybe, the narrator suggests, that’s the saddest part of all: if the tables were turned and he were the one driving a car, he’d blithely speed past a staggering stranger on Christmas Eve as well.

It was by the recommendation of a 77 Santas reader that first turned me on to Del McCoury’s “Call Collect On Christmas.” Before our narrator leaves his mountain home, his mother tells him one thing: “Don’t forget to call collect on Christmas.” His mother almost surely holds little wealth but is willing to pay for the call if it means hearing her son’s voice on Christmas Day.

Listen closely and you’ll hear a story about class, about the ways telephones lines connected rural America, and about the grief of forsaking your home. That’s an old Appalachian motif: don’t get above your raisin’. In America, we’re fed a myth that each one of us can ascend our birthplace and live a life better than our parents. However, there’s a rub—living out that story can be perceived as insolence. After all, aren’t family, commonality, roots, and community more important than the drive for success?

It seems perfectly fitting that Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s song “Cold White Christmas” begins with our protagonist at her anticlimactic college graduation in December. She signs a lease and braces for what promises to be a cold, white Christmas in St. Paul. The keen-eyed details create a richly lived-in world, so vivid and specific, that aches with earned sincerity.

The online music publication Pitchfork described the songs of Owen Ashworth, the singer/songwriter/instrumentalist behind the now defunct project, as “tired, morose, frustrated, sick of waiting.” Doesn’t that also describe so many of us at some point in the holiday season? There’s a weathered acceptance by the end of the song, an unsettling realization that the world is cold and indifferent. But, at the same time, we get to figure out a way to make that world work out for us. Or at least to try.

So many of the saddest holiday songs focus on people who can’t return home for one reason or another: a wandering hitchhiker, a country boy who left for the big city life, a recent college grad too proud and scared. Our next narrator resides in prison, metaphorically at least. 

John Prine, the song’s writer and singer, told The Telegraph as much: “It’s about a person being in a situation they didn’t want to be in but I used all the imagery as if it were a prison. And being a sentimental guy, I put it at Christmas.” 

There’s no denying that so many holiday songs are sickenly sentimental. By and large, most of the songs I’ve highlighted have avoided sappiness. That’s the needle good holiday music must thread–evoking sincerity while avoiding the sugary feel-goodery. Prine’s wry humor shines in this song, as does a melancholic yearn.

Mary Gauthier’s “Christmas In Paradise” mixes genuine moments of beauty with stark, harsh reality. The song begins with the theft of a K-Mart Christmas tree. Davey, the friend of our narrator, ties the tree to a bridge rail, does a little dance, and then smiles down at his best friend below. Davey and our narrator both live under the Cow Key Bridge in Key West, Florida.

I guess the point I’m making with these last few songs is that truly great songwriting has taken place within the Christmas genre, it’s just that you’re unlikely to have heard it, at least on terrestrial radio. 

Our final bummer is one you’re likely to know, either Judy Garland’s original version or one of the myriad others.

JAY: Composer Hugh Martin and lyricist Ralph Blaine, contracted to write songs for the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis, originally began the song this way:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It may be your last

Next year we may all be living in the past

It’s even darker when you situate the song within the film–Judy Garland’s character delivers the song to a five-year old girl. In a 2006 Fresh Air interview, Hugh Martin said that Garland found the song too “lugubrious” and asked for a rewrite. Garland said audiences would believe she’s a monster if she delivered lines like:

No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,

Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.

Martin reluctantly agreed to the rewrite and nearly all of the lyrics were changed, with an obvious exception for the titular line. One other section survived from the original version as well: 

Someday soon we all will be together

If the fates allow

Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow

That line, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” is wonderfully bleak. And Garland did indeed sing it to the child in the film. Perhaps it’s one of those tough love lessons–hey kid, we have no control over the world, we don’t know whether things will turn out good or bad, and don’t forget that life is struggle.

Frank Sinatra first recorded the song in 1947 with that line about muddling through. However, when he released 1963’s holiday album A Jolly Christmas, he asked Hugh Martin to jolly things up. That’s how we ended up with watered-down final line about hanging a shining star upon the highest bough. Unfortunately, it’s the cheered up version that most of us have heard. 

Classifying these songs as merely sad or depressing would overlook how well these songs capture the viewpoint of the marginalized and the forgotten. There’s no pretense about pessimism or optimism here, merely honest attempts by some fine songwriters to capture pain.

For our final case study, let me paraphrase the great Detroit punk band MC5: It’s time to kick out the jams, Santa Clauses. What better place to start than “Jingle Bells, Part 2”?

JAY: What’s not to love here? Pastor T.L. Barrett leads a church choir overtop of that funky bass. Through that call and response, jingle bells becomes a kind of mantra that symbolizes love, peace, and acceptance. We need jingle bells, Barrett says, and not just at Christmastime but all year long. “You mean treat me wrong,” Barrett cries out, “but I wish you well.” With a minute left, Barrett shouts out to those in Vietnam and those in the ghetto and begs for love and peace to rain down upon them.

Detroit Junior’s “Christmas Day” was featured on one of the legendary underground mixtapes that comedy writer Eddie Gorodetsky had made for friends for nearly seven years before one wound up in the hands of a record producer. That producer asked Eddie to curate a compilation that eventually became 1991’s Christmas Party with Eddie G., one of the all-time great commercially released Christmas music collections.

JAY: Before we get to the final song, one last barnburner that challenges tradition. Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns transform “Silent Night” into a rollicking New Orleans R&B stomp. It’s easy to forget that this song is about the birth of baby Jesus and not closing time at the corner bar. Smith was one of the pioneers of rhythm and blues and I imagine this rendition struck some listeners as scandalous in 1962.

JAY: My closing argument isn’t just my favorite holiday song, it’s a play this this at my funeral song. I have smiled, cried, sang, and danced to this song, sometimes together. It has been an enduring part of my holiday memories since before I was a teenager.

JAY: Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is the best Christmas song ever recorded. Love’s annual performance of the song on David Letterman, both on NBC and later CBS, was can’t miss television. For her final performance on the Late Show, Paul Shaeffer, as usual, directed a band and an orchestra, and Love stands atop his piano. They build toward a crescending finale with Love’s pleading, soaring, virtuoso delivery.

JAY: It’s a decidedly simple song: Darlene and her man were together last Christmas, they’ve recently broken-up, and she begs for him to return on Christmas Day. I first read music writer Herb Bowie’s description of this song years ago and still think about his write-up about the song. So I submit this as my final expert testimony: 

But there’s something else going on here. There is no happy ending. The boy never shows up. If we listen closely to the lyrics and their delivery, though, we can feel another kind of tension. There is another conflict occurring, and that is between the forced joy of the season and the singer’s own personal feelings of being sad and lonely. Once we become aware of this implicit conflict, the pieces of the song fall into place. We realize that the background choir is a group of people singing the single word “Christmas” over and over in a monotone, the effect being almost oppressive. In contrast, Love’s individual vocal is marvelously expressive, her voice caressing and playing with every word, every syllable.

Herb Bowie

Merfolk Music Box” by Komiku plays

JAY: Christmas music is one of the most diverse of all musical genres. We heard rock, folk, instrumental, R&B, and country. We heard songs that rocked, songs that mourned, and songs that danced. We heard versions that transcended the typical constraints of how we might view the genre. And hopefully you heard some songs that were new to you.

Because isn’t that one of the joys of the season? To share? To give? So, tell you what: head over to and leave a comment. What are some of your favorite unheard, unknown, or obscure holiday songs? Because that’s the great thing about music: There’s always something out there that we haven’t heard yet.


JAY: You have been listening to Hidden Language. For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit You can also find a Spotify playlist featuring songs played in this episode along with YouTube links to performances.


Music was provided by the following artists through, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.

“Winter Walk” by Podington Bear. CC BY 3.0

“Ice Skating” by Borrtex. CC BY 4.0

“Merfolk Music Box” by Komiku. CC BY 1.0


Mark Ronson’s 2014 TedTalk 

Pitchfork’s review of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s Etiquette

The Telegraph: John Prine: His 10 Best Songs

NPR’s Fresh Air: The Story Behind “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”

Reason to Rock: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

Sound Body

Sound Body Hidden Language

Scott wraps up his two-part series on the language of massage, listening to sounds — and silence — as therapy.

A CAMPFIRE crackles.

BECCA: We went camping a couple weekends ago and it was a very quiet place. I think it was in the evening and we were all sitting around the fire, and one of the kids made a comment. They said, “It’s too quiet here.” And I said, “That’s the purpose of this.” It’s  just to get away and it’s okay to sit and stare at the fire and, you know, be quiet. It makes you think — sometimes you can actually think when you don’t have noise around and it feels good or you don’t have to think. You can just stare at the fire and not have to think about anything, but I do wish, I wish that in our culture we would welcome silence more than what we do.

CAMPFIRE continues. Then SILENCE.

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Kitchens Hidden Language

What do our kitchens mean to us? How do they speak to us? Today, Jay opens the fridge, the cabinets, and more in search of an answer.

Jay opens the microwave door, inserts a bowl, and turns on the machine.

JAY: Kitchens give us sustenance–what type and how much seems limited only by our imaginations. Their purpose extends far beyond preparing food. Kitchens are the beginnings and endings of our days, they’re little snacks in between, and they’re always trying to tell us something.

“Carnival” by smallertide begins

When I recently announced that I was contemplating ways in which our kitchens communicate with us, my wife laughed.

“This kitchen tells us one thing,” she said. “That it’s impossible for two people to cook together in this space.”

It’s entirely likely that she said this while sliding past whatever sprawling work station I’d set up on the kitchen counter. And she was probably sidestepping a beagle or two snooping for crumbs on the floor. Obviously, she had a point: Our kitchen can feel cramped.

However, is tight space necessarily a bad thing? Those who share kitchen space are forced to collaborate and communicate. At the most basic level, they must work out who does what when. That’s easy enough to plan ahead of time–you’ll make soup on Sunday, I’ll bake bread on Tuesday, and so forth.

But what if more than one person must bake or cook in the kitchen at the same time? They must choreograph a chaotic and hurried pattern of pauses and dashes, of starting and stopping, of avoiding or nearly colliding. When my wife and I engage in this kitchen dance, we might be bearing sharp knives or lugging pots of boiling water. We waltz and minuet and carry a conversation overtop usually loud music. And somehow we do collaborate and communicate–we’ve yet to cut or scald each other when sharing the space.

Anyway, all of this made me wonder more about kitchens and the different languages–

The microwave BEEPS five times, music STOPS

JAY: Ah, let me get that out of the microwave first.

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