Go on an archaeology dig of the
greatest story ever told with Donna Ulisse.
By: Gina Kay Singerhouse
(This article was printed in the November / December 2012 issue of Strictly Country Magazine.)
Have you ever stopped to take a closer look at a Nativity set? All the little figures, depicting all the people who had a role in the greatest story ever told. How accurate are the Nativity sets that you see in all the stores around this time of the year? What is their individual story? Where did they come from? What had to happen in their lives, so that they could come together on one night of the year to play a role in the greatest story ever told? Have you ever truly wondered what really happened that night thousands of years ago?
Some call the story, of the birth of Jesus Christ, the greatest story ever told. For thousands of years, this story has been passed down from generation to generation. It's a story that has been told so many times, that for many of us it has lost all of it's grandeur. Until now.
On October 23, 2012, Bluegrass artist Donna Ulisse released her first Christmas album called All The Way To Bethlehem. Through eleven new Christmas songs, Donna takes us on an archaeology dig of the story of the Birth of Jesus Christ.
"This was a real labor of love." states Donna Ulisse. "I think when I was seeking to re-tell something that has been told a million times and looking for a new angle, I just decided to bring it down to a very human element."
"I had done this really bizarre private party for a skeet shooting place in Arkansas." tells Ulisse. "The gentleman that owned the farm (Where the skeet shoot took place), was such a really nice, wonderful Christian guy that was telling this story that inspired him. He was trying to tell me that you never know how you effect people or what will come of things that you do. He was using an example of a legend of about King David who had a cousin named Shimham, I think is his name. He had given him a track of land for being loyal to him. Years later he asked Shimham what he had did with the land. He said 'oh I had built an Inn on it.' Years later it had been the Inn that turned Mary and Joseph away. I did a lot of research, I believe it's legend. I did find Shimham in the Bible. I didn't see that story about David and I looked every where and did a lot of internet research. However, that got me thinking about that part of it. Then, I was lucky enough to be asked to do the guide vocals for the CMA Christmas shows that are televised here in Nashville. I was doing them for the male and female guide vocals. So I did about thirty Christmas songs and I knew them all by heart. Because they're the ones we always hear. All of these wonderful artists are going to get up there and sing the same songs that we've all heard a million times. I went home that day and I thought you know I otta write one. Then I remembered that story about the Inn and it really started with the song 'You Can Not Stay Here' last year. Once I wrote the story and really sat and thought about the Inn keeper and I thought he is just a regular old dude trying to make a dollar just like every body else. He wouldn't have turned them away if he had the room, 'cause he would want their money. That's really how it started and that's really how it connected on a human level. These people were asked to do extraordinary things, but they didn't know they were going to be extraordinary. They were just trying to get through life. They were just regular ole folks."
The album opens with "I See The Light Of The World." A beautiful, light hearted song that sets the stage for the entire album. An album that brings to life the story of many people who were brought together to create a story that would eventually become the greatest story ever told.
The second cut, "You Will Be Delivered," gives us the first glimpse of Mary and tells her story of how Gabriel delivers the news to Mary that she will give birth to the son of God. Donna, explores the "delivery" in both meanings from the books of the Bible, Luke 2:6 and Isaiah 19:20 in this song. Can you imagine the weight this young woman carried upon her shoulders? What was her first response when Gabriel told her what she must do? What expression did she have on her face? How did she take the news?
The third song brings us to the story of Elizabeth, cousin of Mary, in "Elizabeth." It was Elizabeth who was deemed barren, until God answered her prayers to give birth to a child who would latter become John the Baptist. This song shares the story of when Mary visits Elizabeth. What happened that day when the two first met? The Bible tells us that the babe inside Elizabeth leapt for joy. However, what truly happened? What conversations did the two women have? On one hand we have an aged woman who, by the grace of God, is pregnant with her first child after deemed barren for majority of her life. On the other hand, we have a young child, as our current society sees it, who is pregnant with the son of God. What did they talk about? What actions were taken during Mary's three month stay with Elizabeth?
Donna continues the story with "He's Not Mine." In this song, Donna explores the story of Joseph. Here is a man who must marry a young woman who is already pregnant with the son of God. Remember this was a time in society that an unwed, pregnant women were considered outcasts and harlots. In our society, we are unfazed by such imagery. However, in those days unwed mothers could and often were stoned to death due to their uncleanliness. Can you imagine what went through Josephs mind, when he was told that he would have to raise a child that was not his? A child that would grow up to carry on the weight of the world. Donna gives us a glimpse of what Joseph may have thought about at the time. This song is a wonderful ballad in which many fathers today could relate too as they help raise a son who is not theirs.
The story continues with "All The Way To Bethlehem." In this song, Donna explores the journey that Mary and Joseph took to Bethlehem. Think about it - a nine day journey of 120 miles of tough terrain that often contained robbers. The story says that Mary rode a donkey. However, the Bible does not confirm that. But, think about riding a donkey. They are not as comfortable as today's transportation. Mary would have rode on the back of a bony donkey while covered with layers upon layers of garments. The donkey would have carried Mary as well as supplies that they needed for the journey. Supplies that included water, shelter and food. On the other side, we have Joseph. What was going through his mind while he guided the donkey through the rough terrain? Not only that, anyone who knows about donkey's will tell you that they are stubborn and often need to be pushed and pulled to get them to do anything.
This brings us to "You Cannot Stay Here." The song that was the beginning for this project. In this song, Donna tells the story of Joseph asking the Inn keeper for a room. Of course we all know the result. However, what was actually said between the two men we do not know. Was the Inn keeper kind or rude? What was Joseph's reaction to the Inn keeper?
It was then that Joseph took Mary to a stable. We all picture the manger as it is depicted in a Nativity set. In actuality it was a cave carved into the side of a hill. The top of the cave was the home, while the bottom of the cave were the stables. The homes were built this way because the heat from the animals would rise up to the second level to heat the home portion of the cave.
The album continues with a wonderful heartfelt ballad called "Let The World Wait For A Little While." In this song, Donna sings about how for one brief moment Mary takes the time to hold her son prior to giving him to the world. After giving birth, what did Mary look like? What were her first words to Jesus? The Bible states "But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart." Luke 2:19. What was she pondering? What were Joseph's first words to a boy that he would have to raise to be his son? This song is a wonderful song to share with new mothers.
In the hills of the region, below the dark night sky there were shepherds watching over their sheep. These fields were located amongst rough terrain. Shepherds would often find caves and make a temporary fence with bushes and branches to hold their sheep in while they slept.
Donna talks about these shepherds in "He Is Here." The song speaks of Gabriel, the angel of God, making the announcement to the shepherds about the arrival of Jesus who is Christ the Lord. What did Gabriel actually say to the shepherds? Where the shepherds scared? Did they run? Did they fall upon their knees and accept something so great?
The Bible talks about the star of Bethlehem that led the three wisemen to the baby Jesus. Donna shares this story in a fun Bluegrass song called "I'm Gonna Shine." Have you ever looked in the night sky and seen a bright star? How bright was that star on that night?
The story continues with the three wisemen in the song "We've Come To Worship Him." Were these three wisemen truly wise? Where were they from? The Bible states that they came from the East, however could they have been from the Orient or simply from Arabia, Persia or Asia Minor? Did they truly travel on camels? Where did they get the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh? What was the value of such gifts? Why were the three of them traveling together? Did they truly kneel before Jesus, Mary and Joseph when they arrived at the stable?
The album ends with "Morning In Bethlehem." This song is a beautiful, light hearted song with a Celtic feel. In this song, Donna sings about what it could have been like in Bethlehem the morning after such a momentous event. As the streets would become busy with the daily grind, who was it that spread the news, of the birth of Jesus, throughout the streets of Bethlehem? How would people react? Would they rejoice or would the look down their noses at the shepherds who supposedly spread the word?
When I look back on the story of Jesus' birth, it amazes me all the things and all the people involved, what has to happen to make this story come full circle.
"I think the part that effected me so much was I got to learn these characters in a whole new way. Like I could sit down and have dinner with them." tells Donna. "I fell in love with them so much. Just fix 'em dinner and they are just regular people. The part that probably effected me the most was here is little Mary, she's asked to do this really wild thing and go down and explain to people 'look I'm totally innocent in all of this. I've been asked by God to do this.' Joseph who was a really stand up guy. He could have turned her away and probably be stoned in the street and killed. Her family would have probably been stripped of all their fortune. But he (Joseph) was a nice guy and he sent her up to her cousin's house to try and figure it out. I was raised on this story just like a lot of Christens, you think you know it. Then when you get in there and start really researching, they were just good people. I just totally connected on that level."
What brings this album to the forefront of Christmas albums is that it truly captures the essence of what Christmas is all about. We celebrate Christmas because of the birth of Jesus Christ our savior. It's not about how much we spend, what we give or what we receive. It's about how a group of people came together because of a momentous event. An event that would become a story that would be passed down from generation to generation.
Through these eleven songs that Donna Ulisse wrote and co-wrote, we are reminded of this momentous event in a different way. Donna gives new life to a story that is older then anyone of us. She is able to capture who, what, when and where of this story. But, she also encourages each listener to really think and ask questions about each of the people among this story. What kind of people were they? Could we truly relate to them? What really happened that night so many years ago?
This is an album that truly needs to be heard, shared and discussed. It's an album that would make for the perfect Christmas card and gift. An album that will bring the true meaning of Christmas back in to your heart as you try to live your busy life.
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