Archive for December, 2014

December 28, 2014

Week 175 – The Trees are All Bare

The trees all are bare not a leaf to be seen
And the meadows their beauty have lost.
Now winter has come and ’tis cold for man and beast,
And the streams they are,
And the streams they are all fast bound down with frost.

One of my favourite seasonal songs, from the repertoire of the Copper Family – they call it simply ‘Christmas Song’. Bob Copper sings it solo on the 4 LP set A Song for Every Season  but I learned it from Bob’s book of the same name. Having learned it from the printed page, and found a way of fitting the words comfortably to the tune, whenever I listen to any of the Coppers singing the song,  I always find their word fit on some lines incredibly awkward.

According to the late Malcolm Douglas the song was

Originally a poem written by Thomas Brerewood of Horton, Cheshire (d. 1748); part, I think, of a set of four called ‘The Seasons’. A setting by ‘Mr Lockhart’ appears in Joseph Ritson, A Select Collection of English Songs: With Their Original Airs: and a Historical Essay on the Origin and Progress of National Song. London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 3nd edn, 1813, vol III p 153: http://books.google.com/books?id=u-UVAAAAYAAJ

The words are in volume I, page 232 (song LIV), titled ‘Winter’: http://books.google.com/books?id=6a4iAAAAMAAJ

The text appears as ‘Winter’ in The Universal Songster. London: Jones and Co., III, 1834, 163-4. http://books.google.com/books?id=jGQLAAAAYAAJ

At Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads as The Timid Hare

Lockhart’s tune doesn’t appear to be related to the one used by the Coppers or by George Townsend.

I have updated the links above to the Bodleian Broadside site, which has been been revamped since Malcolm wrote that. Here is ‘The Timid Hare’ from a broadside published between 1858 and 1861 by “John Bebbington, Printer, 31, Oldham Road, Manchester. Sold by J. Beaumont, 176, York Street, Leeds”.

The Timid Hare: mid-nineteenth century broadside from the Bodleian collection.

The Timid Hare: mid-nineteenth century broadside from the Bodleian collection.

All the versions in the Roud Index are from Sussex or Surrey. Although some have different verses to the Coppers none, as far as I can see, retains the second verse from the original poem, which begins “While the peasant inactive stands shivering with cold”. The people who kept this song alive presumably knew that “peasants” rarely had the chance to be inactive (and had more sense than to be so on a freezing cold day).

This song has been the closing number at our Magpie Lane Christmas concerts (well, the one before the totally spontaneous encore, at any rate) since I first played one in December 1994. It was on our CD Wassail recorded and released the following year (and due to be re-released next year, with luck, having been unavailable for some time). And I never tire of it. Below you’ll find two recordings from Christmas 1993. It seemed appropriate to include the recording from the Holywell in Oxford, as that is where the band has played almost every year since 1993; but there’s also one from Woking, where we were joined by former member Marguerite Hutchinson on vocals and Northumbrian pipes.

On behalf of the band, enjoy the rest of Christmas and have, as the song says, a joyful New Year.

Now Christmas is come and our song is almost done
For we soon shall have the turn of the year.
So fill up your glasses and let your health go round,
For I wish you all,
For I wish you all a joyful New Year.

 

The Trees are All Bare

Magpie Lane recorded at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 14th December 2013.
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Ian Giles – vocal
Jon Fletcher – bouzouki, vocal
Sophie Thurman – cello, vocal
Mat Green – fiddle

Magpie Lane recorded at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 7th December 2013.
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Ian Giles – vocal
Marguerite Hutchinson – Northumbrian small pipes, vocal
Jon Fletcher – bouzouki, vocal
Sophie Thurman – cello, vocal
Mat Green – fiddle

December 20, 2014

Week 174 – Sweet Chiming Bells

After last week’s rather depressing entry, here’s a supremely cheerful Christmas carol, recorded at one of last year’s Magpie Lane Christmas concerts.

As mentioned a couple of weeks back, my introduction to folk music came via records, especially records by Steeleye Span and the Watersons, and members thereof. The first folk band I ever saw live was a local EFDSS-style country dance band, possibly the Rigadoons, but actually I think a band who played in the same style but with less enthusisam. That was at a school dance where, with a bunch of friends, I discovered (rather to my surprise) that dancing could be quite fun. The music made very little impression on me though. The first band I saw live after my conversion to folk music would have been in 1976, at a barn dance in Warehorne Village Hall, in Kent;  the band was the Oyster Ceilidh Band. As I’m English, and given to understatement, let’s say I could have done a lot worse. Actually, let’s not beat around the bush, they were bloody fantastic, both to dance to, and to listen to. It was a particular treat to see them in such a small venue – Warehorne Village Hall was tiny, and the band played on a stage made out of boards resting on the billiards table (I later discovered that this had been the case in the 1930s too, when Charlie Bridger had played there for sixpenny hops).

The Warehorne dances were organised by Ron and Jean Saunders, who also organised various other events in the village. One Christmas – I think it was probably 1977 – there was a mass carol-sing around the village, led by singers and musicians from the Oyster Ceilidh Band / Fiddler’s Dram and Oyster Morris. My friend Mike and I had already been going out “wassailing” for at least one Christmas by then, and we’d heard quite a number of folk carols on record. But it was a revelation to me

  1. that “normal” Christmas carols could sound pretty good accompanied by melodeon and guitar (not just ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ and ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’, but ‘We Three Kings’ and ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ too)
  2. there were alternative tunes for some well-known carols – this was the first time I had ever heard the Herefordshire tune for ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ which is now almost ubiquitous on the folk scene.

The carol which seemed to be the favourite with the Oyster crowd – and continued to be, at Oyster Morris pub sings at Kingston in the 1980s and 90s, and no doubt still is to this day – was this one, ‘Sweet Chiming Bells’. And I think I can safely say that not a year has gone past since then that I’ve not sung it in some context. It was a staple of our “wassailing” repertoire in Kent, and when Carol and I continued the tradition in Oxfordshire. We also sang it at a primary school concert with our son Joe (about 10 at the time) singing along and bashing out the chords on a piano. And in recent years it has become a favourite in the Magpie Lane Christmas repertoire (even though it’s just a bit too unrelentingly jolly for one member of the band).

The version I learned that night in Warehorne came from Meltham, near Holmfirth in South Yorkshire, where John Jones, singer and melodeon player with Oysterband, had grown up. Like many other Yorkshire and Derbyshire villages, Meltham had its own store of Christmas carols, often slightly different to the versions sung elsewhere – there’s a list on this Mudcat thread. John did once tell me the name of the piano player who led the pub carol singing in Meltham, but I can’t find the scrap of paper on which I wrote it down. Never mind, it’s a great song to get you in the Christmas spirit. Thank you John!

Sweet Chiming Bells

Magpie Lane, recorded at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 7th December 2013.

Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Sophie Thurman – cello, vocal
Jon Fletcher – bouzouki, vocal
Mat Green – fiddle, vocal
Ian Giles, Marguerite Hutchinson – vocals

December 13, 2014

Week 173 – On Christmas Day

Not exactly full of Christmas cheer, this week’s entry. Nor does this bleak song portray the Redeemer as a particularly forgiving or compassionate deity. It’s quite widely sung these days, but has been rarely collected. In fact pretty much every version you hear around the folk scene is likely to derive directly or indirectly from the version recorded by Fred Hamer from the wonderful Shropshire gypsy singer May Bradley, or that collected in 1912 from her mother Esther Smith by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ella Leather.

You can hear May Bradley singing the song on the EFDSS CD A Century of Song, and on the Musical Traditions disc Sweet Swansea. Her mother’s singing had also been recorded – on phonograph cylinder – although unfortunately we’re not in a position to hear that.

On the EFDSS cassette The Leaves of Life – following on from May Bradley’s singing of ‘Under the Leaves’ – you can hear the moment when Fred Hamer realises that she is the daughter of Esther Smith. Hamer seems to get quite excited at the Vaughan Williams connection, but Mrs Bradley is clearly unimpressed by any mention of “the greatest composer in this country”. It’s a lovely insight into the cultural chasm that could exist between singer and collector.

Another version of the song, collected from an unnamed gypsy singer in the New Forest, is titled ‘In Dessexshire as it Befel’. You can download a PDF of that version from http://spellerweb.net/cmindex/Gipsy/Dessexshire.html

The notes on that site say

This curious carol was one of a number collected by Alice Elizabeth Gillington (1863-1934), a clergyman’s daughter and student of gypsy culture who herself spent the last quarter century of her life as a gypsy. The Herefordshire gipsy carol, On Christmas day it happened so is a variant of this one.

I’ve almost known the words of this song for years, and recently decided it was time I learned it properly. Incidentally, this is not the only Christmas song from Shropshire where the sins of the farmer are visited upon his livestock – see also ‘The Man that Lives’.

On Christmas Day

December 5, 2014

Week 172 – King Pharim

The first folk LPs I heard: Steeleye Span Below the Salt, All Around My Hat, Ten Man Mop; Tim Hart and Maddy Prior Folk Songs of Old England Vol 1; The Chieftains 5; The Watersons For Pence and Spicy Ale; the Copper Family A Song for Every Season. One thing which several of those had in common was really strong harmony vocals, especially on seasonal or ritual songs, and folk hymns and carols. Pride of place in this respect must go to For Pence and Spicy Ale with its harvest songs, its wassails, the magnificent ‘The Good Old Way’, and a really stirring rendition of ‘King Pharim’.

I heard all of these records c1976-77, when I was in the fifth form, going into the lower sixth. Alongside my burgeoning enthusiasm for traditional song, I was also a keen member of our school choir. Mostly, at Christmas, our repertoire came from Carols for Choirs (the green book) but we would also do the occasional number from The Oxford Book of Carols. I remember singing ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ one year, while the invitation-only Madrigal Choir (and no, I never was invited) did ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ from the same source. Anyway, rifling through the book, I was somewhat surprised and intrigued to discover that it contained a number of carols which I knew from folk LPs. Including, rather bizarrely, ‘King Pharim’. This was presented with a set of words which the editors had considered might be suitable for choirs (although I’m sure I’ve never heard any choir attempt it, and suspect I never will); but the footnotes also reproduced the somewhat incoherent lyrics as collected in Surrey from a family of gypsies by the name of Goby, in 1893. The collector was Lucy Broadwood, and she included the carol in her English Traditional Songs and Carols (1908). The notes in that book give the following information:

Child’s English and Scottish Ballads should without fail be consulted for notes on the carols “St. Stephen and Herod” and the “Carnal and the Crane.” The first-named is preserved in the British Museum, in a MS. judged to be of the time of Henry VI. It narrates that St. Stephen, dish-bearer to King Herod, sees the Star of Bethlehem, and tells the king that Christ is born. Herod scoffingly says that this is as likely as that the capon in the dish should crow. The capon thereupon rises, and crows “Christus natus est!” This legend is extremely ancient, and widely spread over Europe. Its source seems to be an interpolation in two late Greek MSS. of the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus. “The Carnal and the Crane” (see Sandys’ Christmas Carols and Husk’s Songs of the Nativity), appeared on broadsides of the middle of the eighteenth century. The well-informed crane instructs his catechumen, the carnal (i.e., crow), in matters pertaining to the early days of Jesus; and tells how the wise men tried to convince Herod of the birth of Christ by the miracle of the roasted cock, which rose freshly feathered, and crowed in the dish. It also relates the legend of the Instantaneous Harvest, which occurs in Apocryphal Gospels (see B. Harris Cowper’s Apocryphal Gospels). The carol consists of thirty stanzas, some of which have lines in common with the Surrey carol here given. It, likewise, is exceedingly corrupted and incoherent, and must have been transmitted orally from some very remote source. The singers of the Surrey version are very well known Gypsy tramps in the neighbourhood of Horsham and Dorking. “King Pharim” is of course a corruption of “King Pharaoh,” and that name is properly given in a very interesting traditional version of “The Carnal and the Crane” lately noted in Herefordshire. It is quite natural that gypsies should substitute “Pharaoh” for “Herod,” for, on the first appearance of gypsies in Europe (in the fifteenth century), the Church spread the legend that they came from Egypt with a curse upon them because they had refused to receive the Virgin and Child. The gypsies in time came to believe themselves Egyptians, and, according to Simson (1865), recognise Pharaoh as their former king. There is, however, an interesting allusion to Pharaoh in the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, Chap. xxv.: “Thence they (Joseph, Mary and Jesus), went down to Memphis, and having seen Pharaoh they staid three years in Egypt; and the Lord Jesus wrought very many miracles in Egypt.” The editor of the Gospel adds, “Memphis may have been visited, but who was Pharaoh? Egypt was then under Roman rule.” The sixth verse of the “King Pharim” carol is a paraphrase of a passage in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Chap. xx.

I’m pretty sure my friend Mike and I first went out “wassailing” Christmas 1976. That was just the two of us, but by the following year our numbers had swollen, and a sizeable band of singers continued to go out singing every Christmas for the next 10 years or so. We sang a whole bunch of songs pinched from the Watersons, but I don’t think this was one of them. However when Carol and I moved to Oxford in the late 1980s, and organised a carol-singing ensemble there, this did make it into our repertoire. I remember singing it with Magpie Lane too, in the early days, with instrumental accompaniment. Although it fell by the wayside after a year or two, it’s one of those songs I always sing around the house at Christmas-time. A couple of years ago I tried it for the first time on C/G anglo (instead of the more obvious G/D). It seemed to fit, so  I recorded it. The recording has languished in the vaults since then, but I think it’s time to let it see the light of day. This recording is also my first – and so far only – attempt to experiment with multi-tracking, so you get a bit of melodeon as a special treat, It’s not the most polished performance, but think Dr Johnson – dogs – hind legs etc.

King Pharim

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina, D/A melodeon

Jean François Millet, The Flight Into Egypt, c. 1864. Image copyright the Art Institute Chicago.

Jean François Millet, The Flight Into Egypt, c. 1864. Image copyright the Art Institute Chicago.