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
- 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)
- 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