In December 1911 Cecil Sharp was in Shropshire collecting Christmas carols. I’m not sure if he went to Shropshire specifically to collect carols or whether, it being near to Christmas, that was simply what the people he met chose to sing. Equally, I don’t know if the counties along the Welsh border were a particularly rich source of folk carols, or if he’d have done just as well at that time of the year in, say, Essex, or Kent, or Oxfordshire. Whatever the case, he had a rich haul.
Actually, Sharp probably did have a good idea what he was looking for. He’d already visited the village of Lilleshall in October that year, and collected some fine – and mainly pretty obscure – carols from the splendidly named Samson Bates: ‘Awake, awake’,’The Little Room’, ‘This is the truth sent from above’, ‘The Twelve Apostles’, ‘The Virgin Unspotted’… He returned to see Mr Bates on 19th and 20th December, but this was just part of a very productive few days, during which he collected carols from a range of singers in the area. On December 18th, for instance, he noted ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ and ‘The man that lives’, from a Mrs Kilford of Lilleshall.
By Sharp’s time – and for some decades before that – carols had become associated almost exclusively with Christmas. Historically of course, that wasn’t the case – and there were plenty of carols which now got sung at Christmas which really had nothing to do with that particular season. Equally, he found plenty of Christmas carols which focused on the need to live a godly life (and what would befall you if you didn’t), rather than cosier motifs such as angels, shepherds, ox, ass and baby Jesus in a manger. All the same, ‘The man that lives’ has to be one of the least cosy carols I know. It sets out its stall right from the start:
The man that lives must learn to die,
Christ will no longer stay;
Our time is short, death’s near at hand
To take our lives away.
To my mind it seems to look with rather too much relish on the fate of unrepentant sinners. That they’ll suffer the torments of hell may well accord with your personal theology; but what pleasure can the supreme being derive from seeing the sinner’s sheep rot?
Mrs Kilford’s text is very similar to that found in printed sources such as A Good Christmas Box (a collection from 1847 which we know was still widely used as a source by the singers Sharp met in this area) or this ballad sheet in the Bodleian’s collection, printed in Birmingham around 1850. This suggests that she had probably learned the song from a printed source. Other versions of the carol were collected by Ella Leather and Vaughan Williams in Herefordshire, and by Sharp himself from a Mrs Halfpenny (again, what a wonderful name!) at Lilleshall on 20th December 1911.
In between, on 19th December, he had taken down two very similar versions of ‘Have you not heard within a few miles of Lilleshall’: from Samson Bates (at The Trench) and Henry Bould (at Donnington Wood).
This is another carol which turns up (usually as ‘The Saviour’s Love’) in printed sources: for example this sheet printed by T. Bloomer of Birmingham, between 1817 and 1827; and, of course, in A Good Christmas Box. Indeed Sharp noted just two verses from Samson Bates, before writing “Rest the same as in ‘A Good Christmas Box'”.
Originally, I based my tune on the way Henry Bould sang the carol. But I find that, having sung it for a few years without consulting the music, I’ve drifted away in places. Oh well, that’s the oral tradition… sort of.
I started off learning just the three verses printed in E.M. Leather & Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire. Those are, in themselves, a bit of a mish-mash: the notes say “Text from Mr C. Bridges, Pembridge, and Mr W. Phillips, Leigh, Worcestershire, with a few additions from A choice collection of Christmas Carols (Tewkesbury, 1786) and A Good Christmas Box“. Subsequently, I’ve added three more from the fourteen available in A Good Christmas Box.
Have you not heard
The man that lives
‘The Man that lives’ appeared on the Magpie Lane CD Knock at the knocker, ring at the bell, but this is a live recording – straight off the mixing desk – made at the Oxford Folk Festival in April 2006.
Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Ian Giles: vocal
Marguerite Hutchinson: vocal, recorder
Jon Fletcher: guitar
Sophie Thurman: cello
Mat Green: fiddle