Here’s a Christmas cornucopia, featuring three songs which I have known and loved for a very long time indeed.
I learned ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’ from the Oxford Book of Carols, prompted I think by my friend and singing companion Mike Eaton. I couldn’t swear to it, but I think this was already part of our “wassailing” repertoire before we heard the Steeleye Span recording (it was their Christmas single in 1977). And I reckon I’ve sung it every Christmas since. It’s been in the Magpie Lane repertoire since the very beginning, and is included in our Christmas set pretty much every year; the recording posted here is another from our recent Woking concert.
The carol was apparently first published in 1521 by Wynken de Worde in Christmasse. It has been sung annually at a feast in the Queens College, Oxford – originally on Christmas Day itself, more recently on a Saturday in the weeks preceding Christmas. The following description, from William Henry Husk’s Songs of the Nativity (1868), is reproduced from http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/boars_head_carol.htm
This is a modernized version of the preceding carol [#4: The Boar's Head In Hand Bring I], and owes its chief interest to the circumstance of its being still annually sung on Christmas Day at Queen’s College, Oxford, where the custom of bringing the boar’s head to table on that day has been uninterruptedly maintained.
The new version was in all probability made and introduced into use about the commencement of the last century, as it is palpably referred to by Hearne in a note on the older carol, which he printed amongst the “Notæ et Spicilegium,” appended to his edition of William of Newbury’s Chronicle of 1719 stating that “it will be perceived how much the same carol is altered as it is sung in some places even now from what it was at first.”
The ceremony now attending the bringing in the boar’s head at Queen’s College is as follows: — The head (the finest and largest that can be procured) is decorated with garlands, bays, and rosemary, and is borne into the Hall on the shoulders of two of the chief servants of the college, and followed by members of the college, and by the college choir. The carol is sung by a member (usually a fellow) of the college, and the chorus by the choir as the procession advances to the high table, on reaching which, the boar’s head is placed before the Provost, who sends slices of it to those who are with him at the high table; and the head is then sent round to the other tables in the hall and partaken of by the occupants.
…and the solo singer gets to keep the orange out of the boar’s mouth, apparently.
You can find details on the historical background to the tradition of Boar’s Head feasts in general, and at the Queen’s College in particular, in the New Oxford Book of Carols. The following, from Husk, is reproduced here solely to amuse; not because it is likely to have any basis in historical fact!
There was an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar’s head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar’s throat, crying, “Græcum est,” and fairly choked the savage with the sage.
It is perhaps slightly odd that a carol associated solely with an archaic tradition in a single Oxford College – and half of which is in Latin – should have become so well known on the folk scene, and I’m not sure when or how this happened. I suppose some might say that this is evidence of just how divorced the folk revival is from the genuine music of the people. But you could also argue that all it really shows is that folk club singers love a good chorus song, and if it’s singable they don’t care where it comes from.
‘Babes in the Wood’ is from the repertoire of the Copper Family. It tells of two infants who wander out in the woods, get lost, and die – what could be more festive? Of course the story forms the basis of a pantomime (although I have to admit it’s not one I’ve ever seen performed). But the reason this is considered a seasonal song is because of its place in the Copper Family’s Christmas eating and music-making schedule.
Here I was going to type up Bob Copper’s description of family Christmasses, from his book A Song for Every Season; but in the event I found the following largely similar account already online, apparently the sleevenotes to a Folk-Legacy LP, Bob and Ron Copper – English Shepherd and Farming Songs.
But of all times in the year, of course, Christmas was the season when all members of the family congregated at Grand-dad’s home at Rottingdean.
That little cottage would fairly bulge with aunties, uncles, and cousins that we only saw at Christmastime. On Christmas morning, Ron and I had to take the gigantic turkey and a great round of beef down to the village bake-house to be cooked. It was all far too large to be put into the cottage oven.
We used to carry it on a home-made wooden affair about six feet long which resembled a stretcher and, walking slowly down the High Street with our load draped in white linen sheets, we must have presented a somewhat gruesome and disconcerting sight. At dinner time, everyone seemed to be flocking round Grand-dad who, as hub of the family, was in a grand, benevolent and expansive mood, smoking a cigar in his favourite holder and sporting a fancy waistcoat — the one with the cat1s-eyes buttons. Everyone was talking, hardly anyone listening, and there was a rich smell of Christmas pudding, cigar smoke and wine, all of which added up to that warm, cheerful, friendly atmosphere I have always associated with the “spirit of Christmas”.
After dinner, the older folk would doze in front to the fire, but we used to go for a walk to try to work up an appetite for tea, It was important to have plenty of room for a good tea because every mince pie we ate was supposed to ensure a happy month in the coming year. But with the best will in the world after such a dinner, twelve would be beyond the capacity of even the most enthusiastic. I have managed seven or eight, which would take me through July or August, but by that time my trouser buttons would be so tight that, reluctantly, I had to leave the rest of the year to look after itself.
About seven in the evening, grouped in a wide circle round the fire, we would all settle down to start singing. Only carols and Christmas hymns were allowed up until midnight. After that — when it was officially Boxing Day — the rest of the extensive repertoire came into its own. Towards 1 A.M. the ladies started to lay the supper — and what a supper! There was a great round of cold underdone roast beef, a ham and a vast cold rabbit pie covered with golden crust, laced with a flank of bacon and the best part of a dozen hard-boiled eggs all set in a rich, thick jelly. During supper, we always sang “The Babes in the Wood” and, when everyone had a full plate set in front of them, Granddad would strike up, “Oh, don’t you remember…” and we would all join in, interspersing singing with eating and vice-versa, ingeniously maintaining a steady continuity of both. It was really a work of art and only came after years of practice, this singing in relays. I can see Grand-dad now, finishing a line of the song with a piece of rabbit pie poised on his fork, handing over the song to Uncle Tom and consuming the mouthful of pie before taking up the tune again, two lines later, and so on until the song and most of the supper was over. By this time some of us younger ones were practically crying into our supper plates from grief over the story. This custom went on for years and was continued long after the old man’s death.
In A Song for Every Season Bob comments at this point “One cannot help thinking that in the interests of everyone’s digestion it was a good thing song had only three verses”.
So there you have a song for the approach to Christmas, one to accompany your Christmas Day supper of cold rabbit pie, and finally ‘The King’, a song to accompany (or perhaps replace) your Boxing Day wren-hunting expedition.
Why people in various parts of Britain should have got into the habit of hunting a wren on St Stephen’s Day I really don’t know. There are numerous theories on the internet, and just because they’re all implausible doesn’t mean that one of them isn’t true.
I recently came across a good article which, in a few pages, gives an overview of the various forms which wren-hunting traditions took, and the songs which accompanied them. This is Hunting the Wren by Phyllis Kinney, in Welsh Music History Vol. 6 (2004) and it’s well worth a read.
In Pembrokeshire, where this song comes from, the wren, once captured, formed the centrepiece of a house-visiting custom which dates back at least as far as the late seventeenth-century. Edward Lhuyd, scholar and antiquarian, wrote
They are accustomed in Pembrokeshire etc. to carry a wren in a bier on Twelfth Night; from a young man to his sweetheart, that is two or three bear it in a bier [covered] with ribbons, and sing carols. They also go to other houses where there are no sweethearts and there will be ale etc. And a bier from the country they call Cutty Wran.
Phyllis Kinney also quotes this description by Reverend John Jenkins (‘Ifor Ceri’, 1770-1829) of a similar custom in Cardiganshire:
In the Vicinity of Cardigan the following Singular Custom prevails and which is probably of Druidical origin: On the Night of the Fifth of January a Certain Number of Young Men, generally four, take a Wren which is considered a Sacred Bird, and confine him in a cage (which they call his Bier [Elor]) decked with all the Ribbons they can procure from the Girls of the Neighbourhood. With the Wren thus gaudily housed they visit the Families of the District, singing alternate Stanzas in his praise as King of the Birds and as procuring for them many Blessings during the ensuing Year, on account of his being made a Captive and a Victim.
‘The King’ was recorded from two retired schoolteachers, Dorothy and Elizabeth Phillips, from Hook in Pembrokeshire.
They also gave first-hand reminiscences of the custom, which they remembered from the 1920s. The wren-party would go to ‘any manor houses in the neighbourhood where they would have food and drink and sometimes money’, during the period between 6 and 12 January, which they called ‘Twelfth-Tide’. The wren-house was ‘a little wooden cottage and dressed with ribbons really crêpe paper and the wren was inside and when they entered the house of course they all looked in and wanted to see the king.
The date of this recording is given as 1981, but I’m assuming this was a return visit and that these were the same “two old ladies in Pembrokeshire” from whom Andy Nisbet collected the song in the 1960s.
Martin Carthy has recorded this song at least three times in different settings. I learned it, as I’m sure many others did also, from the Steeleye Span album Please to see the King. But Martin had already recorded it with Dave Swarbrick on Prince Heathen (1969). In fact Norma Waterson told me that, a few days after Martin had first heard ‘The King’ from Andy Nisbet, he happened to meet the Watersons at a festival – and immediately taught them this song! A decade or so later, of course, Martin was a a member of the Watersons, and they recorded ‘The King’ on Sound sound your instruments of joy.
I’d always thought of it as an unaccompanied harmony song, but in the mid-90s I found myself playing around with it on concertina, and found that it fitted a treat in F on the C/G anglo – which happened to be more or less the key that Ian Giles wanted to sing it in. So it became a Magpie Lane number, and we recorded it on our first Christmas CD, Wassail. Though I say so myself, I was rather pleased with the unexpected chord sequence and duetting clarinet parts at the end of that recording.
Although both ‘The King’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’ are Magpie Lane favourites, here I sing them solo, accompanied on my clacketty old wooden-ended baritone Bb/F box.
Happy Christmas, one and all.
The Boar’s Head Carol
Magpie Lane, recorded at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.
Sophie Thurman, Ian Giles, Andy Turner, Jon Fletcher, Marguerite Hutchinson, Mat Green – vocals
Babes in the Wood
Andy Turner – vocals, baritone Bb/F anglo-concertina
Andy Turner – vocals, baritone Bb/F anglo-concertina