Week 301 – Nowell, Nowell

A carol with strong connections to Cornwall. The version of ‘The First Nowell’ sung at carol services up and down the country for the last century or more is based on that printed by William Sandys in his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833). Sandys commented

The carols contained in the Second Part, with the exception of the last four, are selected from upwards of one hundred obtained in different parts of the West of Cornwall, many of which, including those now published, are still in use. Some few of them are printed occasionally in the country, and also in London, Birmingham, and other places, as broadside carols; others have appeared, with some variation, in Mr. Gilbert’s collection, having been derived from similar sources; but a large portion, including some of the most curious, have, I believe, never been printed before.

This is one of those which had appeared – in a slightly different form – in Davies Gilbert’s 1822 publication Some Ancient Christmas Carols. Gilbert, from Helston in Conwall, had the carol from a manuscript prepared around 1816, and now with the Archives and Cornish Studies Service in Truro, A Book of Carols collected for Davies Gilbert Esq. M.P. and F.R.S. by John Hutchens.

Cecil Sharp only collected the song twice, both times in Cornwall, and on consecutive days. He noted this version from Mr Bartle Symons of Camborne on 10th May 1913. Mr Symons said he had learned it when he was a boy from a Mr Spargo. David Sutcliffe’s excellent new website Cecil Sharp’s People identifies this as most probably

Thomas Spargo, born 1811, a stonemason who married a widow Sally Bartle in the 1830s. She brought 3 boys and a girl to the marriage (by her first husband William Bartle). Although Sally died in 1862 and Thomas Spargo remarried, he continued to live near to the Bartle/Symons family. He did not die till 1888 and the link between the two families must have been maintained perhaps at Christmas time in the singing of this carol.

 

Nowell Nowell, as collected by Cecil Sharp from Bartle Symons

Nowell Nowell, as collected by Cecil Sharp from Bartle Symons

Sharp published the song, slightly amended, in the 1914 Journal of the Folk-Song Society. The American collector James Madison Carpenter had Mr Symon’s words in his collection, but he appears to have typed them out from the Journal. However he did encounter the carol several times on his visits to Cornwall, and you can hear cylinder and disc recordings made by Carpenter on the VWML site – for instance this recording of an unnamed singer from the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Had yesterday’s Magpie Lane concerts taken place yesterday, this carol would almost certainly have been in the programme (we left it out last year, so it was due for a comeback). We recorded it on our 2006 CD, Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell, and it’s been a regular part of our Christmas repertoire ever since. Having stood next to Ian Giles for so many years, I thought I probably wouldn’t have too much trouble learning the words, and this proved to be the case. But although I sing it in the same key as Ian, I found that I couldn’t sing it and play my normal concertina part. So I’ve switched to a different concertina, with different fingering, and that seemed to make things easier. It also helped to make this a bit less of a pale imitation of the Magpie Lane version. To distinguish it further, I decided to retain the 6/8 rhythm as noted by Sharp. This felt really awkward to start with – and, to be honest, I still prefer it in three-time – but I eventually settled into the new time signature. Just to cement the rhythm in my head, I prefaced the song with ‘The Rose’, one of many splendid morris tunes from the Oxfordshire Fieldtown tradition. Think of it as a Christmas rose.

The Rose / Nowell, Nowell

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

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