Archive for December 18th, 2011

December 18, 2011

Week 17 – The Holly and the Ivy / Christmas now is drawing near at hand

Last week it was Shropshire, this week we have two carols collected in Herefordshire.

In quires and places where they sing, if you hear ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ it will invariably be sung to the tune which Cecil Sharp collected in 1909 from Mrs Mary Clayton at Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire, and which was included in the Oxford Book of Carols. On the folk scene, this tune exercises a similar hegemony. It was recorded in the 1950s from Peter Jones of Bromsash in Herefordshire, and that recording was included on the LP Songs of Ceremony (part of the Caedmon / Topic Folk Songs of Britain series). I first heard it in 1976 or 77, at a mass door-to-door carol-singing event in the village of Warehorne in Kent, where the singing was led by John Jones and Cathy Lesurf of the Oyster Ceilidh Band. It was an absolute revelation to me a) that carols like ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ sounded really good when accompanied by melodeons and guitars, and b) that there was more than one tune to some carols – notably this one, and ‘While Shepherds Watched’ (little did I know at that stage just how many different tunes ‘While Shepherds’ could be sung to).

I’m joined on this recording by my son, Joe, on fiddle. He said he’d never actually played the tune before, but it was lodged in his brain after “years of exposure to Magpie Lane at Christmas”.  Well, it doesn’t seem to have done him any permanent harm…

In the Journal of the Folk-Song Society for 1914 you will find a number of versions of ‘Christmas now is drawing near at hand’, collected by Vaughan Williams and Sharp in various locations, but particularly in the West Midlands and counties adjoining Wales. You can find transcriptions of some of the versions which appeared in early volumes of the Journal at

I, like almost everyone else on the folk scene, learned this fine carol from the singing of the late, great Lal Waterson, on the seminal Watersons LP Frost and Fire.

A.L. Lloyd’s sleeve notes for that LP say:

This moralising carol was much used by beggars and others towards Christmas time. Its tune turns up over and again attached to such carols as The Fountain of Christ’s BloodHave You Not Heard of our Dear Saviour’s Love, and The Black Decree, also to the favourite old dialogue-ballad of Death and the Lady, traceable to the sixteenth century. Here it is sung by Elaine Waterson in a form common among gipsies habitually drifting through the West Midlands half a century ago.

It looks to me that Lal based her tune on that collected by Vaughan Williams in September 1913: “Sung by a Waggoner (name unknown), Pool-End, near Hereford, Herefordshire”, and one of those printed in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol V, No. 18 (1914).

'Christmas now is drawing near at hand' Sung by a Waggoner (name unknown), Pool-End, near Hereford, Herefordshire; noted by R. Vaughan Williams, Sept 1913. Journal of the Folk-Song Society Vol V, No. 18 (1914) p11

Sometimes I think I’ll relearn the tune the way Vaughan Williams wrote it down – not in a vain attempt to be more “authentic”, but because it has some rather nice subtle twists. But after singing it like this for well over 30 years, I suspect that’s not going to happen.

The Holly and the Ivy

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Joe Turner: fiddle

Christmas is now drawing near at hand