Archive for December 29th, 2012

December 29, 2012

Week 71 – The Gower Wassail

Wassailing Bowl, mid-nineteenth century, made at the Ewenny Pottery, Bridgend. Image copyright Swansea Museum.

Wassailing Bowl, mid-nineteenth century, made at the Ewenny Pottery, Bridgend. Image copyright Swansea Museum.

Here’s a song for Twelfth Night from the great Phil Tanner (1862-1950), the “Gower Nightingale”. Phil Tanner carried on the wassailing tradition throughout his life; an informative Mudcat thread reports:

Mr Eric Gibbs, of Llangennith, remembers Phil Tanner carrying out the wassail ceremony with his friend Billy Bond, always on January 5, the eve of Twelfth Night. Phil would prepare the wassail a week before… a blend of home-brewed brown ale, elderberry wine, fruit cake, ginger and spices. The wassail would be carried in a large tin can holding about a gallon and a half. After a while, the wassail would have been enhanced with brandy, whisky, rum, anything donated by the villagers – and there would still be 12 pints of it. Phil and Billy used to retire to the Picnic Room at the King’s Head, Llangennith, where straw would thoughtfully have been provided by the landlady. They would not be seen again for a couple of days.

I first learned the song from the Steeleye Span album Ten Man Mop with reference at some point to the version printed in A.L.Lloyd’s Folk Song in England. The words of most folk revival performances (mine included) appear to derive from the verses given in Lloyd’s book, which he introduces – with typical sleight of hand – thus:

roistering carols of wassailing still survive as happy reminders of the luck perambulations of unchristian ceremony, with such melodies as the one recorded from grand old Phil Tanner before he died in a Gower workhouse in 1947, and with verses like the following.

The key word here is “like”, as the verses he prints are not necessarily those sung by Phil Tanner! (the sentence is doubly misleading since Phil Tanner actually died in 1950, not 1947). The Mudcat thread linked to above provides Tanner’s words, and those of other versions of the song collected in Gower in 1928 and 1884. It is only comparatively recently that I actually got to hear any recordings of Phil Tanner, and it’s too late to consider relearning the words I’ve been singing for more than 30 years.

The Gower Wassail