I like the idea of a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, but in practice I just can’t get on with a lot of the music – neither the arrangements, nor the way it’s sung. So while I prepare my stuffing, and giblet stock, and cranberry sauce, I’m far more likely to be listening to carolling from Sheffield or Padstow, or The Messiah, or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. So here’s nine carols as an alternative. All have appeared on this blog over the last five years – except, bizarrely, ‘Foster’, which I always think I’ve posted before, but somehow never have. I hope they get you into whatever mood you’d like to be in as Christmas approaches. Now – is it time to put the sprouts on yet?
1. While Shepherds watched their flocks by night (Foster)
After last week’s shipwreck, I thought the blog could do with a bit of Christmas cheer. And this is very jolly indeed. Like ‘Sweet Chiming Bells’ I learned it from the Oysterband’s John Jones, and it’s a carol sung in Meltham, the South Yorkshire village where John was brought up.
It was written by Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915), an American hymn-writer who seems to have had more than her fair share of pseudonyms, and was published in Song Worship for Sunday Schools (1884). There it is credited solely to L.O.Emerson – not another of Crosby’s noms-de-plume, but joint editor of the collection. I assume it was he who set Miss Crosby’s text to music.
Ring Merry Bells, from Song Worship for Sunday Schools (1884), via hymnary.org
John Jones used to sing just the first and last verses, but having discovered a couple more online, I thought I’d include them all here – I rather like the rose of Sharon verse.
The song was very nearly featured on the Magpie Lane album Wassail. We recorded it, but it was cut from the final mix – there was a rather fancy a cappella section which, the lead and harmony vocals having been recorded at separate recording sessions, didn’t quite hang together. Having recently listened back to that outtake, however, there’s a possibility we might revive it next year.
Although I’ve usually referred to the song as ‘Ring, Merry Bells’ I believe it’s known as ‘Morning Star’ in Meltham, and that title prompted the inclusion of the Bledington morris tune ‘Morning Star’ in this arrangement.
A telegram received at Folkestone from Cromer leaves little doubt as to the fate of the brig Woodside, of Folkestone, one of her boats having been picked up. The Woodside left Sunderland on Dec. 20, and has not been heard of. She carried a crew of eight, and was bringing home a Dover sailor who had been discharged from Sunderland Hospital after illness.
Dover Express – Friday 18 January 1895
It’s coming up to Christmas, and the blog returns – but not with “a song for the time when the sweet bells chime”, as the piece popular at Yorkshire carolling sessions has it; more a song for the time when the bell shall toll…
Traditional singers, especially gypsies, would often end a song by saying “and that’s a true story”, but this one really is. It tells in five simple verses of the shipwreck of the brig the Woodside, returning home from Sunderland to Folkestone, which, like a number of other ships, foundered in the terrible storm of 22nd December 1894.
Between December 21st and 22nd, 1894, a whole fleet of British and German trawlers and cargoes were lost during the great storm over the North Sea. All were reported as missing and for some of them, floating wreckage was found
Just before Christmas 1894 the whole of the North of England was battered by a very severe gale. Commentators stated that nothing had been seen like it for over 40 years and it left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.
It started around midnight on the morning of Saturday 22nd December 1894 and gradually increased in strength. The speed of the winds became so strong that they started to cause structural damage. In Leeds the chimney of Messrs. Richard Bailes & Co, Chemical Works at Woodhouse Carr was blown down onto the adjoining house on Speedwell Street. At the time a mother and her six children occupied the house, one of whom was sadly killed. Reports from Liverpool to Whitby reported similar tragedies with many people crushed or hit by falling buildings.
Two trams were blown clean off the rails in Leeds and many shop windows were blown in. In Pudsey a workman narrowly escaped death when the chimney of the factory he was working in came down. Chaos was caused to communications when, starting at midnight, one by one, the 20 telegraph wires linking Leeds with London started to fail. By 1:30 am they were all gone, there was also no communications between Leeds and Derby, Birmingham, Bristol and whole of the west of England, most other places in the north of England were also affected. The telegraph office issued a notice that all messages would only be taken at the sender’s risk.
Grave fears are entertained at Sunderland for the safety of the vessels – George, of Southampton; Woodside, of Folkestone; and Ketch Elizabeth, of Sunderland, which left the Wear on the 21st of December, and have not since been heard of. The crews number 20. Anxiety is also felt concerning the steamer Prescott, which left the Wear on the 29th ult. For Marseiiles. [and which was indeed lost with all hands]
The Globe, Tuesday 08 January 1895
Details of the Woodside and its crew were related in the Folkestone Express, January 1895:
THE LOSS OF THE WOODSIDE COLLIER.
There is now unhappily no doubt that this vessel foundered in the recent disastrous gale in the North Sea on Saturday, December the 22nd, and that the crew were drowned. No particulars of the disaster will ever be known. Her crew consisted of six men and a boy. Their names were Henry Milton, of Fenchurch street, master, who leaves behind a widow and family, the youngest child being about 12; Jesse Wooderson, mate, widow and three young children; Benjamin Cotterell, ordinary seaman, recently married; John McKay, able seaman, single; William Baker, able seaman, single; and Charles Woollett, boy. There was also on board a man named James Batchelor, supposed to belong to Whitstable, who had broken his leg, and the captain was giving a passage to Folkestone.
The young man, Benjamin Cotterell, was a son of Mr. Cotterell, of the Ham and Beef Warehouse, High Street. He has another son who during the heavy gale was in great peril in another ship, not far away from the spot where the Woodside is supposed to have foundered. Writing on board the schooner Via, from Gateshead-on-Tyne, on Boxing Day, to his father, he says: “We arrived here safely on Monday evening, after having a fearful time of it. We left London on Wednesday, blowing a gale, and got out clear of the river, when the forepeak halyards came down, and we had to put back to Sheerness with the head of the sail split. Left again on Thursday morning, and went into Harwich in the evening. Left Friday morning, and got down off Flamborough Head on Saturday morning at four o’clock, when that terrible gale struck us, It had been blowing a moderate gale all night. We were blown right off the land – blew all our head sails to ribbons and two of the head stays with them. At last we got her hove to, with only a close-reefed mainsail on her, and oil bags over the side. I very nearly lost the run of my mess, owing to the lower topsail. We lay hove to for about 10 hours, seas breaking aboard all the time. I think it was a lot worse than last year. I was over to Sunderland yesterday, and was told the Woodside left on Thursday. I hope she came all right out of it.”
We understand arrangements are being made to raise a fund for the benefit of the widows.
It seems likely that this song was locally composed as part of, or to draw attention to, those fund-raising efforts. It has been collected only once, from the brothers John and Ernest ‘Ted’ Lancefield, of Aldington in Kent. They were employed as gardeners at Goldenhurst, Noel Coward’s country home. Francis Collinson, who noted the song down in June 1942, would have moved in the same circles as Coward – both were involved in musical theatre – so it is no surprise that he should have visited Goldenhurst; he might even have been invited over specifically to meet the musical Lancefield brothers.
In Collinson’s MS the song is headed ‘The Woodside Woodison’. The second word in this title always puzzled me but, looking at the list of victims above, I see that Jesse Wooderson was mate of the Woodside. Aldington is not far from Folkestone where the Woodside was based, so the Lancefields may well have known members of the Wooderson family. I’m not sure how old Ted Lancefield was when he died in 1954, but it’s not inconceivable that he knew Jesse Wooderson himself.
‘The Woodside Woodison’ as collected from John & Ted Lancefield, June 1942. From the Francis Collinson MSS via the Full English.
I first heard this circa 1977, as the conclusion to Shirley and Dolly Collins’ magnificent Anthems in Eden Suite. I’ve always liked the song, but it had not occurred to me to learn it until a year or so ago. With Whitsun approaching, a few weeks back I thought I’d better get on with it. Having been so familiar with the song for so long, I was surprised to find that I had to apply quite some effort to get the words into my head. But here it is, and I’m really glad I made the effort – it really is a good song.
It was written in the late 1960s by Shirley’s then husband, Austin John Marshall, whose comments on the song can be found on the Mainly Norfolk site:
Many of the old ladies who swell the membership lists of Country Dance Societies are 1914/18 war widows, or ladies who have lost fiancés and lovers. Country dancing kept the memory of their young men alive. When Shirley Collins started singing the piece to the tune of The False Bride, the impact was disturbing, for many people in audiences identified with it. Tears were frequent. Now a sharp relevance in contemporary song is one thing but such a pessimistic effect was not what was intended. So when Shirley recorded the song we showed the way the spirit of the generation sacrificed in the mud of France had been caught and brought to life by the new generation born since World War II by concluding with the chorus of the Staines Morris.
Dancers at Ilmington, with fiddler Sam Bennett. 1920s? From the Bob and Jean Turner postcard collection.
I suppose there probably weren’t many women’s morris teams in the sixties when Austin John Marshall wrote these words, but by the time I got involved in the folk scene in the late 1970s they were very much in evidence, and I’ve always associated the ladies dancing at Whitsun with morris rather than country dance. There will be many out dancing this Whitsun weekend, so here’s to the Esperance, and these unknown (to me) women dancing at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1912, and morris teams such as Windsor and Oyster, who started in the 1970s and are still going strong.
Morris dancers at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1912. From the Bob and Jean Turner postcard collection.
P.S. I do realise that Whit Sunday was actually two weeks ago, but Bampton still refer to their annual day of dance as Whit Monday, and that’s good enough for me.
I learned this from Caroline Jackson-Houlston. She and I used to sing it together – performing as Flash Company – in the early 1980s, and it’s one of several songs from that period which she and I both retain in our individual repertoires. Mind you, Caroline has always made quite clear what her reaction would be, if a suitor buggered off for a year then came back claiming “you’re the one I really want” – and it wouldn’t be to drag him off to church.
I first sang this at a West Gallery workshop at the Sidmouth Festival, circa 1995, led by Gordon Ashman. I then learned it from the 1997 collection West Gallery Harmony, which Gordon edited with his wife Isabella. Gordon was clearly very fond of the hymn, as it’s stretching things really to call it a West Gallery piece. The words were written by the English novelist and poet Sarah Doudney. First published as a poem in 1871, the words were then set to music by Ira D. Sankey (of Sankey & Moody fame) and included in his Sacred Songs and Solos(first published in 1873).
Sankey – Sacred Songs and Solos
Such was the popularity of Sacred Songs and Solos that it grew progressively in size, from a mere 24 pages in 1873, until by 1903 it contained 1200 songs. When you see them on the printed page – well, when I see them on the page, at any rate – most Sankey & Moody hymns appear to be dreadful nineteenth century sentimental slush, with page after page of hymns with exclamation marks in the title: ‘Closer, Lord to Thee!’, ‘Then shall my Heart keep Singing!’, ‘I am Trusting Thee, Lord Jesus!’, ‘Resting in the Everlasting Arms!’, ‘Ring the Bells of Heaven!’. But they were immensely popular at the time, at least in part, I’m sure, because so many of them provided the opportunity for a jolly good sing. The expanded editions included many popular pieces not written by Sankey or Moody – ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ and ‘Nearer, my God to thee’, for example – but I’m sure the book contains many other lesser-known belters. And fortunately some people on the folk scene – notably members of the Waterson:Carthy/Swan Arcade/Blue Murder/Coope Boyes & Simpson axis – are able to sort the wheat from the chaff: the 1200 pieces include such gems as ‘Will there be any Stars in my Crown’, ‘Only Remembered’, and ‘Deliverance will come’.
In the 1960s, the Incredible String Band renamed a song called I Bid You Goodnight which they learned from Jody Stecher’s recordings of the great Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence and his family, the Pinder family, and the song became, for some folkies, one of those great standards. A year or two ago John Howson visited Staithes to record the Fisherman’s Choir, and was accompanied by Maggie Hunt who, at the same time, was interviewing the individuals involved. During conversations, a Mr Willie Wright sang a snatch of the Sankey hymn Sleep On Beloved which he described as a lowering down song at funerals, and which was clearly the same song as I Bid You Goodnight but in an earlier form, and when Norma heard it, she went to see Willie, who kindly proved her with the other verses. When we sang the song to Jody Stecher, he was enormously pleased, not least because its function as a funeral song in the Bahamian fishing community was identical to that in its North Yorkshire counterpart.
You can hear Joseph Spence and the Pinder Family singing ‘I Bid You Goodnight’ on YouTube (as well as numerous other versions, by everyone from The Grateful Dead to The Dixie Hummingbirds).
If forced to name my favourite John Kirkpatrick album, I would probably plump for Shreds and Patches, his 1977 LP with Sue Harris. But The Rose of Britain’s Isle, their first duo album, would also be high up on the list. Incomprehensibly, neither of those records – nor indeed any of their 1970s output for Topic – has ever been re-released on CD. But you can get them as downloads, and I strongly suggest you do that if you’ve never heard them or if, like me, you’ve worn out your original vinyl copies.
‘Up in the North’ – a cautionary tale for any young men with commitment issues – is track 2 on The Rose of Britain’s Isle and that’s where I first heard it. I learned the words a few years later on a trip to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, from a transcription by John Baldwin in the 1969 Folk Music Journal. By that time I had already heard Mike Yates’ 1972 recording of the song being sung by Freda Palmer of Witney on the Topic LP When Sheepshearing’s Done. I have to confess though that, when learning the song, John and Sue’s interpretation undoubtedly influenced me more than Freda Palmer’s original.
Freda Palmer – photo by Derek Schofield, from the Musical Traditions website.
You can hear Freda Palmer singing the song on – indeed it’s effectively the title track of – the Musical Traditions double CD Up in the North, Down in the South. Mike Yates’ notes say
Up in the North, or, No Sign of a Marriage as it is called in the Southern Uplands of the United States, appeared on several early 19th century broadsides and chapbooks, although it has seldom been encountered by collectors in England. The Hammond brothers noted a fine Dorset version, Down in the West Country, in 1907, while Alfred Williams found it sometime before 1914 at Brize Norton, only a few miles from Mrs Palmer’s home. In Scotland and North America it has been more popular and most of Roud’s 34 entries refer to these countries—however, Freda’s is the only sound recording of the song ever made in these islands.
For a few years, this was my party piece. It was the opening track on my cassette album Love, Death and the Cossack, and I also sang it as a solo piece at early Magpie Lane concerts – there’s video evidence of that, from our first ever concert, in 1993; although now that I come to look for this on YouTube it would appear that I’ve not yet digitised and uploaded it. Having sung the song a lot, I seem to have neglected it for the last 20 years or so. But at Christmas I decided it really was time that I revived the song. I notice that it lasted 4’20” on my 1990 recording, and 4’27” on this one, so it seems I’ve not changed it a great deal in the intervening quarter century – slowing down a little as I get older, but that’s no bad thing when it comes to folk songs and tunes.
Percy Grainger recorded the melody for I Courted a Damsel from the great Joseph Taylor, and the words are from various sources. I learned it from Bill Prince, who had it from a woman he calls a songfinder extraordinary, whose name is Michelle Soinne.
Now I’m pretty sure I own a copy of that LP – bought at Sidmouth in the early-mid nineties, when festival record stalls were selling off their stocks of vinyl at knock-down prices. Bizarrely, I can’t recall ever having listened to the record though (an omission I mean to rectify as soon as possible). And – although I knew that Martin had learned this song from Bill, who in turn had learned it from Michelle – I hadn’t realised that he had ever recorded the song.
I first heard it performed by my friends Michelle Soinne and Andy Cheyne, both at live gigs and on their excellent cassette-only album Fish Royal.
It appears that Percy Grainger – with Frank Kidson, whose transcription is shown below – first noted the song from Joseph Taylor in April 1905.
Once I courted a damsel, as noted by Frank Kidson
He returned to make a phonograph recording of the song in July the next year. As far as I know, that recording has never been made publicly available – it’s not on Unto Brigg Fair nor on any of the volumes of The Voice of the People. Maybe the surviving copies of the recording are simply no longer playable.
Once I courted a damsel, phonograph transcription by Percy Grainger
I learned the words from Yellowbelly Ballads Part Two edited by the poet Patrick O’Shaughnessy. O’Shaughnessy had previously included Joseph Taylor’s fragment, with additional verses composed by himself, in Twenty-One Lincolnshire Folk Songs, but had subsequently realised to which family of songs the fragment belonged, and in Yellowbelly Ballads the additional words are adapted from the version collected by Henry Hammond in the Alms Houses at Taunton, from a Mr Poole.
The beauty bright – broadside printed for W. Armstrong, Banastre-street, Liverpool, between 1820 and 1824. From the Bodleian collection.
I learned this from the Watersons’ 1977 LP Sound, sound your instruments of joy. Bob Copper recorded the song in the 1950s from Frank “Mush” Bond of North Waltham in Hampshire. The song was included in Bob’s Book Songs and Southern Breezes and you can hear the original recording on The Voice of the People Volume 16, You Lazy Lot of Bone-Shakers, alongside Frank’s brother Sam singing ‘Where Does Father Christmas Go To?’. Both brothers were members of the North Waltham Jolly Jacks, a Mummers team founded by Frank, and which continued to perform up to about 1950. They went out on Boxing Day; ‘God Bless the Master’ was sung at the end of the performance, and if you invited them in for a bit of hospitality, you’d be treated to ‘Where Does Father Christmas Go To?’.
You can see the Jolly Jacks in action (but not hear them, unfortunately) in a silent film preserved by Hampshire County Council’s Wessex Film and Sound Archive:
The actors include 3 Bonds and all come from North Waltham. This family has performed this play for certainly five generations.
Reg Hall’s notes for the Voice of the People CD state that Frank and Sam’s father had been a member of the Overton Mummers (a few miles from North Waltham), and five generations seems entirely plausible.
North Waltham Mummers – Hackwood Park 1948, from the Roud/Marsh collection
A carol that is midway between a wassail and a hymn, so a link between pagan luck-wish and pious hope. The words were widespread on garlands and broadsides around 1850, and several versions have been collected in the Southern counties during the twentieth century (most recently by Bob Copper at North Waltham, Hampshire). The Watersons’ tune and words are close to the set found by Vaughan Williams in 1909 at Preston Candover, barely five miles from North Waltham. The song was much used as a Mummers’ Salutation, sung as an overture in front of the houses at New Year before the mummers began their patter.
The Full English shows that the song was in fact quite widespread in Hampshire, as well as Sussex, Surrey and Berkshire. My words are a bit of a mixture of the Watersons’ interpretation of the Preston Candover version and the version printed in Bob Copper’s book (which in fact supplements Frank Bond’s words with a couple of verses from Turp Brown, from nearby Cheriton). There was a time when I took delight in singing Turp Brown’s line “He was buried in some safe old acre”, but these days I’m more inclined to sing “sepulchre”, which is perhaps not such a memorable choice of words, but makes a lot mores sense.
Surprisingly, I have so far posted only one other version of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’ on this blog – Sweet Chiming Bells. I was convinced I had also posted a recording of Magpie Lane singing ‘Foster’, but checking the site index I find that it’s not so. This will have to be rectified (actually, it is the first song in our Magpie Lane Christmas playlist which I shared here a week or so ago, but that doesn’t count!). It would be nice at some point also to be able to post recordings of ‘Otford’, ‘Lyngham’ and, probably my favourite setting of them all, William Knapp’s wonderful ‘The Song of the Angels, at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour’. And that still would still be no more than scratching the surface of all the great settings of these words from West Gallery sources, and from the living carolling traditions of South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Cornwall.
The words of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ – properly, as Knapp titled it, ‘Song of the Angels at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour’ – were written by Nahum Tate (1652-1715), poet laureate to William of Orange. The ubiquity of the words owes much to the fact that the six, easily-remembered verses were included immediately after the metrical Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer.
Shepherds Watch, collected by Cecil Sharp from Charles Benfield, 4th September 1909. From the Full English.
The simple tune was noted by Cecil Sharp on 4th September 1909 from Charles Benfield of Bould in Oxfordshire. Mr Benfield (1841-1929) is better known as a morris musician – he played both pipe and tabor and fiddle, for morris sides including Bledington,Fifield, Idbury, Longborough and Milton-under-Wychwood.
A drawing of Charles Benfield, and the “queer way he held his bow”. This is a scan of a postcard from my parents’ collection. The illustration was also used as the frontispiece in the first issue of the Countryman magazine. Check out the back of the postcard too.