Archive for December, 2019

December 26, 2019

On the Feast of Stephen

Happy St Stephen’s Day, everyone. Here’s a trio of songs showing three different aspects of the day.

Saint Stephen

A song about the man himself, detailing the death of the first Christian martyr. Or, as I used to put it, a song about a man who gets stoned on Boxing Day.

Here’s the version on the Magpie Lane album Wassail.

For more information, and an alternative arrangement, see https://afolksongaweek.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/week-121-saint-stephen-rejoice-and-be-merry/

The Wren Boys’ Song

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze

In Ireland the custom – widespread throughout the British Isles – of hunting and then processing with a wren on 26th December was carried out by the Wren Boys.

St Stephen's Day, Wren Boys : Three wren boys in road, Athea, Co. Limerick. Image copyright University College Dublin, National University of Ireland, Dublin.

St Stephen’s Day, Wren Boys : Three wren boys in road, Athea, Co. Limerick. Image copyright University College Dublin, National University of Ireland, Dublin.

Here’s Ian Giles leading a typical Wren Boys’ Song he learned from Tony Barrand.
From Magpie Lane, Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell. Further information.

Boxing Day

Finally, here’s an account of goings on among London tradesmen in the 1820s. For more information, see https://afolksongaweek.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/week-227-boxing-day/

 

December 24, 2019

Another Festival of Nine Carols and No Lessons

Three years ago I put together and here’s another one. This time, rather than presenting songs which have already been posted to the blog, I’ve prepared a Spotify playlist of tracks I’ve been involved with, both as a member of Magpie Lane and as guest vocalist with the Mellstock Band. I’ve actually sung on three Mellstock CDs but only the first, Under The Greenwood Tree, appears to be on Spotify. You can still buy that album at Amazon (so hopefully also via retailers who do pay their taxes). Any of the Magpie Lane CDs featured here are available from the band website.

 

 

Here are brief details of the nine carols, and the instrumental intro and outro.

  1. Magpie Lane
    Magpie Lane, from The Oxford Ramble.
    Noted down by John Baptist Malchair in December 1789: ‘I heard a Man whistle this Tune in Magpey Lane Oxon Dbr. 22 1789. came home and noted it down directly’
    More information
  2. Arise and Hail the Joyful Day
    The Mellstock Band and Choir, from Under The Greenwood Tree
  3. Gabriel’s Message
    Magpie Lane, from The 25th.
    Lead vocal: Sophie Thurman
    More information
  4. As Shepherds watched their fleecy care
    Magpie Lane, from The 25th.
    Lead vocal: Andy Turner
    More information, plus a live recording
  5. Nowell Nowell
    Magpie Lane, from Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell.
    Lead vocal: Ian Giles
    Bagpipes: Giles Lewin
    More information
  6. Arise and Hail the Sacred Day
    The Mellstock Band and Choir, from Under The Greenwood Tree
    Vocals: Andy Turner and Keith Dandridge
  7. Lo the eastern Sages Rise
    Magpie Lane, from Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell.
    More information, plus a live recording
  8. In Winter Time
    Magpie Lane, from The 25th.
    Vocal: Jon Fletcher
    More information
  9. The Boar’s Head Carol
    Magpie Lane, from The Oxford Ramble.
    Lead vocal: Tom Bower
    More information, plus a live recording, and all sorts of other stuff
  10. Rejoice this Glorious Day is Come
    The Mellstock Band and Choir, from Under The Greenwood Tree
  11. Winter / Christmas Day in the Mornin’
    Magpie Lane, from Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell.
    Bagpipes: Giles Lewin
    More information
December 14, 2019

Week 285 – Shepherds Rejoice

In my previous post, I recounted how a bunch of us used to go out “wassailing” round the more salubrious parts of Ashford, and the distinctly well-heeled area between Saltwood and Sandling Station. As Mike, my chief partner-in-crime, commented last week

Big houses with appreciative, generous occupants. I remember gluhwein and mince pies, and even having the impression on subsequent years that some of our hosts had been expecting us and even looking forward to our arrival.

That’s exactly how I remember it too. It probably helped that we were collecting for charity rather than to line our own pockets. But also, compared to the usual brief, tuneless renditions of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’ which even then were becoming standard fare, we were a pretty good deal. We were mostly singing carols the people had never heard before. We sang them loudly, in harmony, and we sang them all the way through. Mind you that wasn’t always an advantage. I remember one poor gent, who invariably greeted us kindly, patiently waiting while we ground our way through all three verses of our favourite, ‘Shepherds Arise’, and then told us “Well I always enjoy your singing, but I have to say I thought that was dull as ditchwater!”. We were somewhat taken aback by this, but tried to repair matters by singing something rather livelier as an encore.

Other incidents that have stuck in the memory include the youngish man – drunk, or perhaps stoned – who came to the door in his dressing gown and informed us that he was the most entertaining guy we’d meet all night. And the dog with its head in a bucket, who its female owner (a magistrate as I recall) had in consequence taken to calling “Bucket”. Also, some years later (long after your time, Mike) we went singing round Faversham and were invited in by an Irish guy who worked as a buyer for Sainsburys, and had just been given a case of Jamesons – which he proceeded to dispense to us in very generous measures.

And then, of course, there was the house where we were presented with a copy of The Sacred Harp. From October 1979 Mike and I were regulars at the Heritage Society, the Oxford University folk club. We soon became friends with Dick Wolff, a mining engineer who was taking a Theology degree in preparation for becoming a United Reformed Church minister, and Dougal Lee, who I guess was doing English Lit, but whose chief ambition (subsequently realised) was to become an actor. One Monday night after we’d been chucked out of the Bakers’ Arms in Jericho, we went back to Dick’s house in Leckford Road, and there he produced a copy of The Sacred Harp. Now I was aware of Sacred Harp hymns from recordings by the Watersons and the Young Tradition, and from having seen Crows sing ‘Northfield’. But I’d never seen the book before, with its funny shapes, and literally hundreds of songs in four-part harmony just waiting to be sung. Well, we sung them: ‘Russia’, ‘Wondrous Love’, ‘Idumea’, ‘Morning Trumpet’, ‘Northfield’… eventually stopping at 1 o’clock in the morning, when Dick’s neighbours started banging on the walls. We were hooked, and sang together regularly after that (we never had a proper band name, but tended to refer to ourselves either as The Paralytics, or Three Agnostics and a Christian).

That Christmas, Mike and I introduced a couple of Sacred Harp numbers into our wassailing repertoire. So having been invited in to one house, and given sherry and mince pies, we must have sung one of those pieces, and explained where the song came from. Whereupon the man of the house said that he travelled regularly to the States on business and would see if he could find us a copy. One year later, back we went, and were delighted to find that he had been as good as his word, and we were now the owners of a 1968 facsimile of The Sacred Harp, 3rd edition, of 1859.

‘Shepherds Rejoice’ is number 288 in that edition, and it’s presented – as many pieces were in the early editions – in just three parts. The music is attributed to L.P. Breedlove, 1850. That’s Leonard P. Breedlove (1803-1864 according to this source). The song was first published in 1855 in McCurry’s The Social Harp. It’s number 152 in the modern Sacred Harp, where it’s gained an alto part having been “Rearranged by B.S.Aitken, 1908” but lost one of the four original verses. Well, strictly speaking it’s lost two of the original six verses – you’ll see what I mean if you visit https://hymnary.org/text/shepherds_rejoice_lift_up_your_eyes. The words were written by the great English hymnodist, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and originally published as ‘The Nativity of Christ’ in Horae Lyricae, 1706.

You can hear a four-part rendition of the piece as it appears in the modern Sacred Harp at https://soundcloud.com/keillor-weatherman-mose/shepherds-rejoice-cmd-152-sacred-harp

I don’t know if the tune was originally a folk tune, harmonised by Breedlove, or if he just wrote a tune which sounded very much like something that could have come from the tradition. Either way, I’ve always felt that this would go rather nicely with 5-string banjo and fiddle. But failing that, I now realise an anglo-concertina is a perfectly acceptable substitute!

Shepherds rejoice

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

December 8, 2019

Week 284 – Down in Yon Forest

I was an enthusiastic singer long before I discovered folk music. At primary school I looked forward eagerly to the weekly broadcast of Singing Together, and I very much enjoyed hymn singing in the school hall (‘He who would true valour see’ and ‘When a knight won his spurs’ were particular favourites). At secondary school I sang in the choir as treble, alto and then tenor, and especially enjoyed the Christmas carol service. Our repertoire was drawn largely from Carols for Choirs, but the school also owned a set of The Oxford Book of Carols, and we’d sometimes perform songs from that – I was particularly taken with ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ and I’ve a feeling we once sang ‘A Gallery Carol’.

By December 1976 my obsession with folk music was a year old. In the intervening year I had listened to whatever English, Irish and Scottish folk LPs I could get my hands on. These included Steeleye’s Please to see the King, For pence and spicy ale and Frost and Fire by the Watersons, and the single LP selection drawn from the Copper Family A Song for every season box set. Thus I was very much aware of the existence of seasonal songs, wassails and folk carols. And because of this, I viewed the pages of The Oxford Book of Carols in a completely new light. Here were Wassail songs (including the ‘Somerset Wassail’ which would be recorded the following year by the Albion Dance Band. Here were ‘King Herod and the cock’ and ’Down in yon forest’, which I’d heard on Frost and Fire. And here was the Watersons’ ‘King Pharim’– with details of where and when it had been collected and, in the footnotes, the full text as originally noted down from the travelling Goby family. Moreover, I now realised that some quite well-known carols – the ‘Sussex Carol’ for instance – actually had their origins in the folk tradition. Subsequently the book provided easy access to the words of ‘Saint Stephen’ and the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’ which I’d heard on record and wanted to learn.

That year my friend Mike and I went out “wassailing” (no mere carol-singers we!). It’s a long time ago of course, but I imagine our repertoire that first year was probably something like this

and, always my favourite

  • ‘Shepherds Arise’

In subsequent years our numbers grew. I have a vague recollection that on one occasion there was quite a gang of people we knew from school, but our friends Alison and Gill were key members of the wassailing party then, and for several years to come. The girls used to complain that ‘Down in yon forest’ should be sung sensitively, while Mike and I were belting out the harmonies with the same lack of refinement we brought to the other, more forthright carols. They were probably right – and I’m quite sure I’d get a hard stare from Sophie if I sang the refrain in an inappropriately boisterous manner these days at our Magpie Lane Christmas shows.

We’ve actually recorded the song twice now with Magpie Lane. The first time on Wassail, where it was sung by Joanne Acty, with Pete Acty on guitar, Di Whitehead playing one of Tom Bower’s wonderfully evocative minor key cello parts (that album is chock full of them), and Tom himself on harmonium. There was talk of having a bowed psaltery too, but thankfully wiser counsels prevailed.

None of these people being in the band any more, we revisited the song on our most recent release, The 25th. This time it’s sung by Sophie Thurman, with Jon Fletcher on guitar, and Jon, Ian and myself providing harmonies.

Until this year I’d never thought of trying the song on my own, with a concertina accompaniment. Well it seems to work pretty well, although I had to concentrate really hard on enunciating the initial L in “I love my Lord Jesus” – in early attempts to record the song I seemed to be slurring “I love” as if I were drunk (I wasn’t, probably just concentrating too hard on getting the accompaniment right).

So, what of the song? I hear you ask. Well, when A.L.Lloyd recorded it in 1956 the sleevenotes, by Kenneth A. Goldstein, said

It its earliest known form, the ballad appeared in a 15th century manuscript into which it had probably been copied from the singing of contemporary carol singers. The first version reported from tradition was taken down from the singing of a young boy in North Staffordshire, England, before 1862
(see Notes and Queries, third series, II, 103).

Anne Gilchrist (in JFSS, IV, pp. 52-56) interpreted this ballad in terms of the Holy Grail legend. Christ’s blood was collected in the Grail by Joseph of Arimathea, and was borne to Avalon for safe- keeping and sanctification. The hall in the forest is the castle of the Grail, the bleeding knight is Jesus, the hound licking the blood may be Joseph (or possibly the Church), and the thorn mentioned in the last stanza is the Thorn of Glastonbury which blossoms once a year (on old Christmas Day) in honour of Jesus’ birth.

Quoted at https://mainlynorfolk.info/lloyd/songs/downinyonforest.html

Other theories are available, and I won’t trouble you with them here.

Malcom Douglas had this to say at Folkinfo.org:

Anne Gilchrist quoted the 16th century text along with that from Notes and Queries in the Journal, together with a very detailed discussion of the imagery, linking the song with the Troubadour tradition and suggesting connections with the Grail myth and Mithraic  tradition. This was backed up by G. R. S. Mead. This tentative analysis has tended, subsequently, to be assumed as received wisdom; but should probably be treated with great caution.

 

What we do know is that the song was collected in 1908 by Ivor Gatty and Ralph Vaughan Williams from a Mr J. Hall of Castleton, Derbyshire. See the VWML archive for copies of this, and other versions noted by the early folk song collectors.

Down In Yon Forest, as noted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1908

Down In Yon Forest, as noted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1908

Peter Kennedy recorded a brief rendition of ‘Down in Yon Forest’ from Mr Hall’s daughter Elizabeth in May 1957 – you can hear her talking about this and other Castleton carols on the British Library Sounds website.

Today the carol has been reintroduced to the Castleton carol-singing tradition. There’s a recording of it, with Fay Sexton taking the  solo lines, on the double CD The Theme, the Song, the Joy: A Feast of Village Carols.

 

Finally, to return to The Oxford Book of Carols. I liked that book so much, and found it so useful, that I asked our music teacher Mr Fehr if I might borrow the copy I’d been using at the school carol service. He was a kindly soul, always supportive of boys’ musical enthusiasms, even those (rock music, and to a lesser extent folk music) in which he personally found no merit. So of course he said I could borrow the book. And I suspect he might have done so even if he’d been fully aware that a couple of years later I would leave school without the slightest intention of returning my cherished red-bound copy of The Oxford Book of Carols, first published 1928, twenty-third impression 1956. It’s still a cherished possession – after all, much as I admire the New Oxford Book of Carols, there are plenty of interesting items, this one included, which were left out of the new version. So RIP James Fehr, you were a gent.

 

Down in Yon Forest

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina