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.

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