Posts tagged ‘anglo-concertina’

January 8, 2023

Week 309 – The Cherington Wassail

Last week I posted a Wassail song which was definitely collected in Oxfordshire: . My searches of the VWML catalogue also threw up 3 phonograph recordings made by James Madison Carpenter, all of the same song. None of the recordings is dated, and all are credited to an unnamed “Oxfordshire Singer”.

The first thing that struck me about the song is that it is very reminiscent of the well-known wassail printed in the Oxford Book of Carols as ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail’. Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire are neighbouring counties, so I wondered if this particular strain of wassail song had crossed over the border. However, the more I look into it, the more likely it seems that the American collector Carpenter was confused, and wrongly labelled a song he had actually recorded in Gloucestershire.

The GlosTrad website has a list of songs collected by Carpenter in the county. This includes three wassails. Both the Avening and Minchinhampton songs are similar, but clearly not the same as these “Oxfordshire” recordings. The Cherington Wassail Song on the other hand looks suspiciously close.

The song’s source is given on the website as Tanner, Thomas and Howes Mr and Phelps, Charlie. Carpenter’s own notes are quoted thus:

Mr Howes has known for sixty years. Bowl decorated with fox’s brush and holly bow, with bough, decorated with ribbons. Charlie Phelps checked the Cherrington (sic) Wassail sung by Tom Tanner.

I did wonder if Thomas Tanner was related to the Bampton singer Charles Tanner, and that was where the Oxfordshire connection came from. But the GlosTrad page on Thomas Tanner tells us that he came from a well-established Cherington family, so I think that’s a red herring. When I consulted members of the Traditional Song Forum, the replies I got suggested that Carpenter’s attributions were not always to be relied upon.

Elaine Bradtke, who works for the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, wrote

I’ve been working on the Carpenter Collection with Julia Bishop.  A couple things to note: Carpenter was not the best of record keepers. His indexes for cylinders and discs are often rather vague, or just plain incorrect, and I suspect they were made significantly later than the recordings themselves. He also seemed to be a little geographically challenged, so his indications of locations may not always be correct. But that’s what we had to work with when we indexed the collection.  After we transcribed much of the material, we were able to match many of the texts to the recordings and give more precise attributions.  However, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Cylinder 131 00:00. We don’t know who sang it or where it was sung.
You are correct, it is very close to the Gloucestershire versions.  Especially Avening, and Cherrington where they repeat “Our bowl it is made of some mappelin tree With our wassailing bowl we’ll bring unto thee”. But it is not an exact match to any of the typescript texts in the collection.  I would say it’s probably Gloucestershire, despite what his own index said.

The GlosTrad site – and I’ve no doubt that the site’s founders Carol and Gwilym Davies will have based this attribution on the best information available – lists Tom Tanner as the singer of ‘The Unquiet Grave’, which comes immediately after the Wassail song on this recording https://www.vwml.org/record/VWMLSongIndex/SN18617. So I’m going to assume that it’s also Tanner singing the Wassail – it certainly sounds to me like the same singer. So I’m also assuming that the song I’m posting here is essentially the Cherington Wassail.

Out of laziness as much as anything else, I’ve sung the words from this transcription by Carpenter, which uses a standard chorus, rather than repeating the last two lines of the song.

Incidentally, all three Wassails collected by Carpenter in Gloucestershire refer to the bowl being made of the “mappelin” or “maypolin” tree. As far as I can tell, this is simply another name for the maple.

The Cherington Wassail

Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

December 28, 2022

Week 308 – The Adderbury Wassail

A couple of people have asked me recently if there were any Wassail songs collected in Oxfordshire. A quick search of the VWML catalogue brings up 10 records, but most of these actually refer to the same song – the two verse fragment collected by Janet Blunt from William ‘Binx’ Walton of Adderbury in December 1917. Of the others, none can definitively be said to be an Oxfordshire song:

In his book Village Song & Culture: A Study Based on the Blunt Collection of Song from Adderbury North Oxfordshire, Michael Pickering writes

Binx tried hard to remember this song for Blunt in December 1917, but could remember only two of the three verses in their entirety. Of the first verse, only the opening came back to him: ‘Good mortal man, remember…’
This is a familiar wassail song line, and we can safely assume that the nature of those following was didactic.

In looking for additional verses to add to the two which Walton did remember, I came across this nice version by former Adderbury Morris Squire Tim Radford. But noting that he’d got a couple of the verses from the Albion Band, I thought I’d choose some others, just to be different. The “mortal man remember” phrase I associate with the Hampshire Mummers’ Song ‘God Bless the Master’, and it turns up also in this Sussex Mummers’ Carol. I’ve borrowed my first couple of verses from there (verses which I think can fairly be categorised as “didactic”); added a generic “God bless the master…” verse as verse 3; and then I finish off with William Walton’s two verses. This means I get to sing the splendid line “A bit o’ your good vittles ma’am” at the end of the song, finishing off, appropriately enough with

We wish you a Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year.

Sentiments which I heartily endorse.

William Walton's Wassail Song, from the Janet Blunt MSS.

William Walton’s Wassail Song, from the Janet Blunt MSS.

The Adderbury Wassail

Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

November 8, 2022

Week 307 – When Adam was first created

I must have been singing this song for very nearly 45 years. Always unaccompanied in harmony, of course, as is right and proper for a song from the Copper Family repertoire.

In the last year or so, I’d toyed with an arrangement in F on my C/G anglo. But this morning I decided to try it on the more sonorous Crabb F/C concertina which I found myself unable to resist at this summer’s Whitby Folk festival. It seemed to fit, and although my voice hasn’t been at its best of late, it didn’t seem too croaky. So I decided to slap it down on “tape” and post it here straightaway.

The song’s central point is – as James Brown would attest – that man is nothing without a woman. But, as with so many traditional songs, the words are written very much from the man’s perspective, and betray the fact that the song originated in a male-dominated society. I feel that the song’s heart is in the right place: it insists that Woman is not to be trampled upon by Man, but that she was created “his equal and partner to be”; but then blows it in the very next line by stating “when they’re united in one, sir, the man is the top of the tree”. Oh well.

Looking at broadside versions of the ballad on the Bodleian website, it’s clear that these lines weren’t inserted by the Coppers, but were there from the start. They’ve been softened a little in the the rather nice version of ‘When Adam was created’ which Sharp collected in 1918 from Jasper Robertson at Burnsville in North Carolina – in fact the song has been explicitly turned into a wedding song.

In praise of dear women I sing - ballad from the Bodleian website

In praise of dear women I sing – ballad from the Bodleian website

 

When Adam was first created

Andy Turner – vocal, F/C anglo-concertina

December 22, 2021

The Trees are all Bare / The Sussex Carol

It’s been a pretty quiet year for the A Folk Song A Week blog – although I have posted quite a lot of tunes on my Squeezed Out site (in fact, in a daring piece of cross-platform syndication, I shall be sharing this same video on that blog too).

The video here was filmed at the end of the final gig in a run of half a dozen Magpie Lane Christmas concerts, at the rather lovely 12th century church of St. Leonard, Bengeo, Hertford.

In the interval I asked the vicar if he’d mind filming the last number on my phone. At which point he introduced me to Dr Mike Howarth, an audience member who just happens to be a former BBC cameraman. Mike is clearly used to working with rather higher quality equipment than the camera on my Android phone, but he wasn’t going to let that get in the way of some rather more interesting camera work than the static point and shoot video I had been envisaging! So many thanks, Mike, for producing this lovely souvenir of our Christmas gigs.

What you have here are:

  • First, the Copper family’s ‘The Trees are all Bare’ – always the final song in our Christmas programme, ever since 1994. For more on this song, see Week 175 – The Trees are All Bare.
  • And then the obligatory encore (although on this occasion we had to prompt the audience to demand one!). This invariably consists of the Shetland tune ‘Christmas Day i’da mornin” segueing into ‘The Sussex Carol’. That, too, has been featured on this blog before – almost exactly 10 years ago, as Week 18 – The Sussex Carol.

Having not performed together since December 2020, it was great to be playing with Magpie Lane again. Even if I could never quite rid myself of the worry that, with a new variant on the loose, we were all in great danger of getting infected, just before Christmas.

Many thanks to

  • Ed Pritchard, for stepping in so magnificently to dep for Mat Green.
  • The event organisers who took sensible COVID precautions in order to keep band and audience safe
    (N.B. for anyone wondering if there should have been a comma after “event organisers” – no, a comma was very deliberately omitted, and you can make of that what you will).
  • The audience members who tested before coming to a gig, who wore masks, and kept their distance, but nevertheless (we hope) had an enjoyable night out.

 

The Trees are all Bare

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Ian Giles – vocal
Ed Pritchard  – fiddle
Sophie Thurman – cello
Jon Fletcher – vocal, bouzouki

 

Christmas Day i’da mornin’ / The Sussex Carol

Ian Giles – vocal, percussion
Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina
Ed Pritchard  – hardanger fiddle
Sophie Thurman – vocal, cello
Jon Fletcher – vocal, bouzouki

November 24, 2021

Week 306 – Only Remembered

A couple of weeks ago I heard that Larry Gordon – great enthusiast for and promoter of Shape Note singing, and leader of numerous choirs, most notably Northern Harmony – had fallen off his bike, sustained irreversible brain damage and would shortly be taken off the ventilator. That same evening I heard that Barry Coope had died after a short illness. I didn’t know either man well. I’d probably not seen Larry for 20 years, and while Barry and I would say hello if we bumped into each other at a festival, that was about it. But the sudden, unexpected nature of their deaths – and, to be honest, the fact that Barry was only a few years older than me – made me feel quite emotional. The next day I found myself turning to songs associated with Larry and Barry which seemed appropriate. In Larry’s case it was a favourite Shape Note piece, ‘Parting Friends’, which he recorded with both the Word of Mouth Chorus and the Bayley-Hazen Singers. For Barry, it was Coope Boyes & Simpson’s sublime arrangement of ‘Only Remembered’.

That’s as perfect a slice of vocal harmony as you’re ever likely to hear. And if you search YouTube you’ll find other live recordings of the song, demonstrating that it was not just in the recording studio that they were able to attain this perfection.

‘Only Remembered’ started off as a hymn with words by Free Church of Scotland minister Horatius Bonar (1808-1889). The tune was composed by the prolific Ira Sankey – you can find the words and score at hymnary.org. It was adapted by John Tams for use in the stage production of Warhorse – in particular he made it less overtly religious by writing a new last verse (“Who’ll sing the anthems, who’ll tell the story” strikes me as particularly Tamsian line). And then it was adapted further by CBS – the rhythm changed from 4/4 to 3/4, and the harmonies are all their own.

I’d never thought of learning this song previously, but set about it immediately. Initially I toyed with learning the original version from my copy of Sankey’s Sacred Songs & Solos. But I soon decided that, as it was the CBS version that had made me want to learn the song, that’s what I should sing. I made this recording at the weekend. It’s not perfect. The concertina accompaniment is still in development. But I wanted to get it down and posted straightaway, as just a small tribute to an absolutely wonderful singer.

On their weekly radio show, Thank Goodness it’s Folk, James Fagan and Sam Hindley presented a tribute to Barry just a few days after he died. It could have been a solemn affair, but in fact it turned out to be a rather joyful celebration of, as guest Ray Hearne put it, a man with a heart of gold and a voice of silver. You can hear the programme on Mixcloud.

 

Only Remembered

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

December 28, 2020

Week 302 – King Herod and the Cock

We’re only a few days into the 12 days of Christmas, and the Kings supposedly arrive at the end of that period, so I’m a little premature in posting this carol.

It’s not a song that has ever really been part of my repertoire in any meaningful sense, but it’s very short, and at some point over the last 45 years I seem to have absorbed the words. I first heard it on the Watersons’ Frost and Fire, subsequently finding the words in the Oxford Book of Carols. We recorded it with Magpie Lane back in 1995, on our Wassail album. Tom Bower sang the carol, and arranged it – an arrangement which included Paul Sartin’s oboe on the instrumental.

In this form, it has been collected only once – Cecil Sharp took it down from the 85 year old Mrs Ellen Plumb at Armscote in Warwickshire in April 1911.

King Herod And The Cock, collected from Ellen Plumb, Armscote, 1911.

King Herod And The Cock, collected from Ellen Plumb, Armscote, 1911.

However the same story crops up in ‘King Pharim’, and it was originally part of a much longer song – a Child ballad no less – called ‘The Carnal and the Crane’. Here’s Sharp’s notes on the song from his English Folk Carols, published in 1911.

The words in the text are given exactly as Mrs. Plumb sang them. I have collected no variants. The tune is a form of the well known ” Dives and Lazarus” air (see “Come all you worthy Christian Men,” Folk-Songs from Somerset, No. 88).
Mrs. Plumb’s lines, although they tell a complete story, are but a fragment of a very much longer carol, consisting of thirty stanzas, called “The Carnal and the Crane,” printed in Sandys’s Christmas Carols, Husk’s Songs 0f the Nativity, and elsewhere. For traditional versions with tunes, see Miss Broadwood’s English Traditional Songs and Carols, and The Folk-Song Society’s Journal (I, 183 and IV, 22 with notes).
In this latter carol the Crane instructs the Carnal (i.e. the Crow) in the facts of the Nativity, of the truth of which the two miracles of the Cock and the Miraculous Harvest are cited as evidence.
I am unable to offer any explanation of the meaning of the word “senses,” which occurs in the last two stanzas of the text. In the printed copies it is given as “fences” – evidently a confusion has somewhere arisen between the letter “s,” in its old fashioned form, and “f.” “Thrustened ” = “crowed”; it is evidently a derivative of t he Mid. Eng. thrusch which meant a chirper or twitterer.
The origin of the carol, and of the legends associated with it, is exhaustively analysed in Child’s Ballads, to which the reader is referred. The conversion of King Herod to a belief in the power of the new-born Christ in the way narrated in the text is an early legend, and one that is widely distributed, traces of it being found in the Scandinavian countries and other parts of Europe. It is not, I believe, mentioned in any of the Apocryphal Gospels, although the second miracle in the carol, the Miraculous Harvest, can be traced to that source.

The story of a roasted cock getting up and crowing was originally associated with St. Stephen. In the Journal of the Folk Song Society Vol. 4, No. 14, discussing ‘The Carnal and the Crane’ in the article Carols from Herefordshire, Lucy Broadwood refers to

the legend of the conversion of King Herod to the belief that Christ is born, by means of St. Stephen, who causes a roasted cock to rise in the dish and cry “Christus natus est!”

If you look at the VWML Digital Archive you’ll see that James Madison Carpenter also collected a Scottish version of Roud 306, although to my uninformed eyes there’s actually precious little to link the two verses of ‘Lood crew the cock’ with this carol.

 

King Herod and the Cock

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

December 20, 2020

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

November 16, 2020

Week 299 – The Good Old Way

Long ago, in a previous age (last February to be precise), I posted a recording of ‘Country Life’, which was Side 1 Track 1 on the Watersons’ magnificent 1975 LP For pence and spicy ale. And now, here’s the final track on side 2.

Like hundreds of others up and down the country, we sang these two almost to death back in the late 1970s /early 1980s. Except “sang them to death” isn’t the right expression – they’re such good songs that they bear repeated singing, and I love them now, as I did back then.

Of the two, this had the greatest impact on my musical tastes and interests. I had already heard Wassails and some other seasonal songs, but this was my first introduction to folk hymnody, and it opened the door to further discoveries – including West Gallery, Shape Note, and the carolling traditions of places such as Padstow and South Yorkshire. I’m not a believer, but I have a love of all types of vernacular sacred music-making. I love the passion in the words, and in the singing of the songs, especially when sung as part of a community – whether that community be a congregation of Old Regular Baptists, the inhabitants of a Cornish fishing port, or a modern West Gallery choir consisting principally of people with slightly off-centre musical tastes who just enjoy a good sing (as an aside, I’m also a big fan of oratorios by Bach and Handel, Fauré’s Requiem and Rachmaninov’s Vespers).

Bert Lloyd’s sleevenotes for For pence and spicy ale say

Unlike John Wesley, who preferred the tunes of imported elite composers such as Handel, Giordani and their lesser fellows, the “gospel trumpeters” went in for folky tunes like Amazing Grace and The Good Old Way. John Cennick (1718-55), who broke away from the Wesleys, was the founder of folky hymnody with his Sacred Hymns (Bristol 1743), which had an enormous effect on the wildfire revivals in Britain and America. The Good Old Way is said to have been a favourite hymn of the wild evangelist John Adam Grenade (1775-1806). In America it acquired a “Hallelujah” chorus and in that form came back to England and was printed in the Ranters’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs (c. 1820). Our version was collected by John Clague from a marble-mason on the Isle of Wight, John Cubbon. It appears in the Folk Song Journal (No. 30), and serves to remind us what grand tunes have been lost to our hymnbooks through the tyranny of Ancient & Modern.

The “Isle of Wight” is a typo – Dr John Clague actually noted the song in the Isle of Man, circa 1829. When printed in the 1926 Journal of the Folk-Song Society, in an  article by Anne Gilchrist and Lucy Broadwood, it was part of a series of articles on Manx traditions which appeared in the Journal between 1924 and 1926. Looking at that article for the first time, I see that the Watersons (probably unconsciously) altered the tune somewhat, in particular omitting a sharpened sixth in the first line. Well, I’m not going to change the way I sing it, after more than 40 years.

If you don’t have access to the Journal of the Folk-Song Society through JSTOR, you’ll find the same tune, with a piano arrangement by W.H.Gill, in Manx National Songs with English Words, Selected from the MS. Collection of The Deemster Gill, Dr J. Clague, & W.H.Gill (Boosey & Co. 1896), and here it is:

The Good Old Way arranged by W.H.Gill

The Watersons also made the entirely sensible decision to cut two of the five verses. You can find all seven verses at Hymnary.org. American Shape Note versions, such as those in Southern Harmony or the Sacred Harp, are set to an entirely different tune and, as A.L.Lloyd pointed out, have a different chorus:

And I’ll sing hallelujah,
And glory be to God on high;
And I’ll sing hallelujah,
There’s glory beaming from the sky.

Of course it’s wonderful, today, to have access to these different sets of words at the click of a mouse button. Back in the seventies when we learned this song we had to write the words out from listening to the LP. And we didn’t always make a very good job of it. We could never make sense of the first lines of the second verse: “Our conflict’s here, the Great Davy / Shall not prevent our victory”.  Who was this Great Davy – another name for Old Nick perhaps? Of course, when I finally saw the words in print, it all made perfect sense: “Our conflict’s here, though great they be…”.

But my singing partner Mike, who had a good ear for this sort of thing, made a good job of transcribing the Watersons’ harmonies. Here’s my copy, marked “GOMENWUDU PRODUCTIONS” at the top – Gomenwudu (obscure Old English word for a harp) was, thanks to Mike’s Dad, the name of our harmony group. And at the bottom, I’ve just noticed, “PRINTED BY L. BOWLER, KARL MARX RULES OK Etc”. Lucas Bowler, the class Leftist, was another schoolfriend, and he must have got Mike’s original sheet of manuscript paper copied. He had been the first boy at school to have a Casio calculator – his Dad worked in marketing or sales, and had got it as a freebie. Clearly Luke’s Dad also had access to a photocopier – at a time when our secondary school teachers were still having to turn out purple smudgy copies on a Banda machine!

The Good Old Way - four part harmony arrangement

The Good Old Way – four part harmony arrangement transcribed by Mike Eaton c1976

I am well aware that the proper way to sing this song is in glorious vocal harmony, but at the outset of this blog I said that I wouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; so here it is sung by me alone, with a concertina arrangement.

The Good Old Way

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

February 8, 2020

Week 287 – Country Life

Side 1, Track 1 on the Watersons’ classic LP For pence and spicy ale. Released in 1975, I must have first heard it the following year when I bought an already secondhand copy from my schoolfriend Peter Carlton. Pete had bought it from another classmate, Richard Marks. I’m not sure what had prompted Richard to buy it – possibly John Peel had played some tracks from it on his Radio 1 show? Anyway, I was immediately hooked. It fitted in perfectly with my existing love of unaccompanied harmony singing, and my burgeoning interest in folk carols, songs of ceremony, seasonal songs etc. It also provided my singing partner Mike and I with another source of folk songs to rip off and add to our repertoire. At one time or another we must have sung half the songs on that album: ‘Bellman’. ‘Swarthfell Rocks’, ‘Malpas Wassail’, ‘Chickens in the garden’, the mighty ‘Good Old Way’ and, of course, ‘Country Life’ (and I was also prompted to learn ‘King Pharim’ as a result of hearing the Watersons sing it).

According to the liner notes on For pence and spicy ale the Watersons got the song from Mick Taylor, a sheepdog trainer of Hawes in Wensleydale. There’s a related, but different song, which shares the same Roud number, sung by Walter Pardon amongst others. As you’d expect, you can find more details, and links to follow up on the Mainly Norfolk website.

We were far from the only people on the folk scene to learn this song. If you’ve been to any kind of folk club or singing session over the last 45 years it would be very surprising if you hadn’t found yourself joining in the chorus of ‘Country Life’ at some point. Our only complaint was that the song was too short. So Mike remedied that by making up an extra verse.

It’s been a long time since Mike and I regularly sang together, and it’s not often I think to sing this song. The last time I sang it in public, I think, was at the 2016 Teignmouth Folk Festival, when Magpie Lane were on the same bill as local harmony trio The Claque, and we finished the show with a very pleasing massed rendition of ‘Country Life’ (well, very pleasing for us!). Not having a vocal harmony group to hand when I came to record this for the blog, I decided to make do with a simple concertina accompaniment.

Country Life

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

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 sang 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