Week 68 – Lo! The Eastern Sages Rise / Hark Hark What News

In Under the Greenwood Tree Thomas Hardy describes how a bunch of church band musicians found that their services were no longer required. The same thing was happening in country churches all over the country, as reforming parsons, fired up with the evangelical zeal of the Oxford Movement – and a desire to make their parishes more respectable – got rid of the old, independent-minded musicians, and replaced them with an organ, or a harmonium, or a barrel-organ, and Hymns Ancient and Modern. In many places the old way of singing just disappeared, but it survived in carol-singing traditions in a few places, most notably in certain South Yorkshire villages and at Padstow in Cornwall. The main difference between  the traditions in those places is that in Padstow they go out carol-singing in the streets, while in villages around Sheffield the carollers have found a welcome home in the pub – places like the Fountain Inn at Ingbirchworth, the Royal Hotel at Dungworth, and the Traveller’s rest at Oughtibridge.

I learned ‘Hark Hark What News’ from a wonderful LP, A People’s Carol, which featured recordings made in the 1970s by Ian Russell at those three pubs, and – in this case – the Black Bull at Ecclesfield. Like all Leader and Trailer LPs, A People’s Carol has long been unavailable, but those traditions and others from the same geographical area are represented on a CD released on the Smithsonian Folkways label, English Village Carols: Traditional Christmas Carolling from the Southern Pennines. ‘Hark Hark’ is on that CD, but it’s the earlier recording which would be one of my Desert Island Discs. Partly because of the presence of a local brass band on verses 1 and 3; but also because, as the singing dies away, a voice off-mic can be heard to say, in a broad Yorkshire accent, “grand old one!”. It is a grand old one, and that comment somehow seems to capture the value which people assign to their local community carolling traditions and, indeed, the importance of all such community traditions, whether involving song, dance, drama or bizarre old customs which are often just plain daft!

Ian Russell’s notes to the Folkways CD say that this

is the only carol to be repeated during the evening, “Hark, Hark! For latecomers.” It has been sung in the village for as long as anyone can remember. The music is attributed to John Hall of Sheffield Park, a blacksmith who dies in the poorhouse in 1794, and it was probably included in his “Selection of Sacred Music on the Nativity” performed at the Hospital Chapel, Sheffield, 26 December 1792. The text appears in broadsheets and chapbooks from the early nineteenth century, but its author is unknown.

'The star of Bethlehem', printed by W. Wright. (Birmingham) between 1831 and 1837; from the Bodleian collection ‘The star of Bethlehem’, printed by W. Wright. (Birmingham) between 1831 and 1837; from the Bodleian collection

‘Lo! The Eastern Sages Rise’ is sung at Coal Aston in Derbyshire, but this version is derived from the way it is still sung today at Padstow.  I was first introduced to the carol, and Cornish carolling traditions, by Graham Kirkham in the late 1980s. It was included on the Veteran tape Rouse, Rouse, a collection of Doc Rowe’s recordings from Padstow released in 1988. That cassette was superseded a few years later by the CD Harky, Harky. I’m not sure if that’s still available, but if it is do try to get hold of a copy, as the singing (and the songs) are quite wonderful.

The carol words were written by Jehoiada Brewer (1752?-1817), a Congregational (Independent) minister at Queen Street Congregational Church, Sheffield and Carrs Lane Congregational Chapel, Birmingham; they are set to a tune by Samuel Stanley (1767-1822) of Birmingham. The words – including some verses not retained in oral tradition – can be found on two broadsides printed in Birmingham in the first half of the nineteenth century, and available from the Bodleian Library’s Broadside collection. In both cases the song is entitled The Star of Bethlehem, and the first line is given as “Lo! the Eastern image rise”.

The carol has strong connections with Cornwall: there was a version in Ralph Dunstan’s The Cornish Song Book (1929), and Dunstan notes

This Carol was formerly very popular in the Parishes of St. Agnes, Mithian, and Perranzabuloe — and is still sung there. Variants of the tune exist, with interpolations. The version given here is from the most reliable MS. collections of 1840-1850.

It also travelled with Cornish miners to America – for instance to New Almaden in California, where many Cornish men worked in the quicksilver mines:

Besides singing in the mines, the Cornish miners would sing door to door beginning a week before Christmas. They sang songs popular in Cornwall, England, where they immigrated from, such as “Lo the Eastern Sages Rise,” “Hark What Music Fills Creation,” as well as the better known “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Afterwards, they would visit with the residents and share saffron cake and tea.

from the Almaden Times, December 22, 2005

The two recordings here are hot off the press – recorded at a Magpie Lane concert at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking. The term a capella is very loosely – and often erroneously used – these days. But given the acoustics of this church, I think we really were singing a capella last night – I have certainly not needed to added any reverb to these recordings!

We were, incidentally, very pleased to be joined on stage by former Magpie Marguerite Hutchinson, who had helped to organise the concert – thanks Marguerite.

Lo! The Eastern Sages Rise

Magpie Lane, recorded the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.

Jon Fletcher, Sophie Thurman, Marguerite Hutchinson, Andy Turner, Ian Giles, Mat Green – vocals

Hark Hark What News

Magpie Lane, recorded the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.

Jon Fletcher, Sophie Thurman, Andy Turner, Ian Giles, Mat Green – vocals

7 Responses to “Week 68 – Lo! The Eastern Sages Rise / Hark Hark What News”

  1. Excellent…….I listened before I read the blurb and was thinking how rich the sound was and was pleased to read that the performers enjoyed the acoustics

  2. Golly, they do it every time don t they. Beautifully sung by very talented and beautiful people. Merry Christmas.

  3. Enjoyed both of these carols very much, I thought the harmonising was excellent.


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