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