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 few days ago I was considering a temporary suspension of activity at A Folk Song A Week. I have a particularly busy month coming up, and no song recordings in my store (apart from the one I have saved for use as The Last Song On The Blog). But a recording window presented itself (i.e. the rest of the household were out for the day!) and I now have enough songs put by to last me into February. Moreover, prompted in part by a reminder from Jim Causley that there are twelve days of Christmas, and they’re a long way from being over, this song suggested itself as just right for New Year.
I knew it from a 1950s Peter Kennedy recording of Charlie Bate from Padstow, included on the Topic/Caedmon LP Songs of Ceremony (Volume 9 of the Folk Songs of Britain series). Some twenty years ago I suggested it as a possible Magpie Lane number, but at the time it met with little enthusiasm. Subsequently I’ve occasionally thought of trying it out as a solo piece, but never quite got round to it. On Monday, however, I found the tune going round my head so, in the evening, I listened to the Songs of Ceremony track to get the words down. What I had forgotten was that the LP only included a couple of verses before segueing into the Truro Wassail Bowl Singers singing the ‘Malpas Wassail’. A search of the web failed to turn up any further verses, although clearly Charlie Bate’s song is a version of this Cornish Wassail song (source not given) and this one from Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book (1929). I emailed a query to the TradSong list, and by 10 next morning had been sent a different Kennedy recording of Charlie Bate, made in 1956, and included on the Folktrax cassette West Country Wassailers.
This recording had six verses which I quickly transcribed and set about singing. As I had anticipated, the song sits beautifully in C on a C/G anglo, and by 11.30 that morning I had recorded the song for inclusion here.
Charlie Bate was an important figure in Padstow, and a man with a lovely, gentle singing style. You can hear a number of recordings of Charlie singing if you search the British Library Sounds website. I’m making no promises, but I’m greatly tempted to learn his I was the lover of Lady Chatterly!
Given the state of the world, it might be unduly optimistic to wish everyone peace, happiness and prosperity, but I hope at least that making and listening to music may bring you joy in 2016 – in fact, I can do no better than to repeat the traditional blessing
Joy, health, love and peace
Be all here in this place
Most of the songs that I’ve posted on this blog I could sing more or less at the drop of a hat. With others I would need a bit of time to mug up on the words and/or accompaniment. And although I do sometimes sing with the words in front of me – particularly when recording a song where I’ve only just worked out the concertina arrangement – that’s purely a practical measure to avoid mistakes, and having to do multiple takes, in a week when the time I have available for recording might be in short supply. So far there has been only one song posted here where I have never known the words – and that was a bit of an exception, as I’d been unaware of the song’s existence until a few days before recording it.
This week, however, I’ve recorded a song the words of which I’ve never made any attempt to learn and, in all probability never will. But it’s appropriate for the season, might entertain a few listeners, and if I don’t record it there’s a pretty good chance that no one else will!
I came across the song on the Bodleian Broadside Ballads website, when looking for possible additions to the Magpie Lane Christmas repertoire, and provided the words with a tune (I briefly entertained the idea that it might be a suitable song for Ian to sing, somewhat in the style of ‘Stuff Your Guts’).
According to Broadside Ballads Online, the song was printed by T. Birt, wholesale and retail, of 10 Great St. Andrew-Street, Seven Dials, London, between 1828 and 1829. It describes the various tradespeople who were (or thought themselves) entitled to receive a “Christmas Box”, and the various other ways in which they would entertain themselves once they had benefited from their customers’ largesse (chiefly in eating and drinking – nothing changes!).
Interestingly, there’s another ballad in the Bodleian’s collection, ‘Boxing Day in 1847’, which mourns the decline in Christmas boxing customs over the intervening twenty odd years.
Verse 5 of ‘Boxing Day’ has Dick setting off “to see George Barnwell at the Surrey”.
This refers to The London Merchant (Or The History Of George Barnwell) written by playwright George Lillo and first produced in 1731. This was Lillo’s greatest hit and still popular a century after the play first opened – it features in Great Expectations in a way which clearly suggests that Dickens expected his readers to be familiar with the play and its plot.
A prose tragedy by George Lillo, produced 1731, based on a popular ballad. A young apprentice, Barnwell, is seduced by the heartless Sarah Millwood, who encourages him to rob his employer and murder his uncle. For this crime both are executed, he penitent and she defiant. The play was frequently performed as a moral warning to apprentices. It was admired by Alexander Pope, though Oliver Goldsmith mocked it as a ‘Tradesman’s Tragedy’ for its commercial focus. The play had a European impact and was commended and imitated by G. E. Lessing and Diderot.
The story of George Barnwell, who robbed and killed his uncle to fund his relationship with a prostitute, was one of the most popular of the nineteenth century, though when Barnwell lived is difficult to say. His tale is first recorded as a ballad in the 1650s, and in 1731 was turned into a play, The London Merchant; it was staged almost 100 times in its first ten years and was printed in as many editions by the end of the century. At about the time this edition was printed, the essayist Charles Lamb drew attention to the strong moral tone of the story, calling it “a nauseous sermon”.
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.
Many people have felt unwilling to criticise Kennedy, or to expose his illegal Folktrax publications, on the (pragmatic) grounds that he has actually made the recordings available. They are no longer available from the EFDSS… and much of the BBC material has been lost… Like a black-marketeer in wartime, Kennedy has been tolerated because “Where else can you get a pair of nylons?”
I never owned more than a handful of Folktrax cassettes – I was put off by the shoddy packaging as much as anything. But I have to admit (as proof of Rod’s point) to being rather glad that I bought a copy of Folktrax cassette FTX-504 The Bitter Withy: Early Folk Carols, as it contains a number of songs which are not, as far as I’m aware, available elsewhere. The opening track is ‘All Hail and Praise’, sung by Ralph Thomas from the village of Ashton-under-Hill (now in Worcestershire, but part of Gloucestershire until the 1930s). It was recorded, not by Peter Kennedy but by Peter Duddridge, in May 1958.
Gwilym Davies told me that there had once been a flourishing carol-singing tradition in and you can read more about this on his excellent Gloucestershire Christmas site:
The Ashton carols were sung by the bell ringers when they came round the village on Boxing Day, but were not sung in the church and the custom died out just after World War II. The carollers were Ken Pratt, Ken Pratt’s father, Albert Langley, Charlie Moore and Frank Whittle (who lost a leg at Mons and who had a lovely voice). They sometimes sang in parts (although it is not clear to what extent Mrs Roberson wrote the published parts). Between the Wars Ralph Cotton used to accompany the carollers on violin. The carollers went round late at night with a lantern on a bean pole. The very last time they sang was in the 1960s when Fred invited them in to sing in the Tudor room at Stanley Farm. One of the carols ‘All Hail and Praise the Sacred Morn’ used to be sung at in the nearby Worcestershire village of Elmley Castle at midnight on New Year’s Eve, after which the singers would go to the church gates and sing it there. That was last done in the 1970’s when Reg Berry was one of the carollers.
Naturally Gwilym’s site also includes a page on ‘All Hail and Praise’, where you can hear a recording of the carol being sung by Ralph Thomas.
We sang this for a couple of years with Magpie Lane but, even at the time, I’m not sure I ever got a firm grip on the words. For this recording I had them in large print right in front of me. I’ve never come across this set of words anywhere else, and they just don’t seem very memorable somehow. Maybe, having over the years sung ‘Arise and Hail the Joyful Day’, ‘Arise and Hail the Sacred Day’, ‘Arise and Hail the Glorious Star’, ‘Awake Arise Good Christians’, and any number beginning ‘Hark! Hark!’ or ‘Hail! Hail! Hail!’, I’ve simply reached saturation point with carols. Still, if you go wrong, it should be fairly easy to improvise, as long as you can string together a bunch of lines rhyming born/morn, star/far, bring/sing/king, earth/birth/mirth and – if you’re from the West of England – join/divine.
Incidentally, keen Roud number-spotters will be getting really excited about this one. It didn’t seem to be in Mr Roud’s index, so I got in touch with Steve, and he’s had a rummage around in his bottom drawer, and found a spare one for this carol – it’s now Roud 25791.
By no means the only Wassail song to have been collected in Somerset, once included in the Oxford Book of Carols this became for evermore The Somerset Wassail (cf. the Gloucestershire Wassail and the Sussex Carol). The notes in the book say that the song was noted by Cecil Sharp “about twenty years ago” (September 1903 in fact) from the Drayton Wassailers in Somerset. Actually he collected several other versions in the county where the words included either the verse about a farmer who didn’t know how to look after his cow (more cider is the answer!) and/or the verse about the “Girt Dog of Langport”.
Wassail Song, noted by Cecil Sharp from Miss Quick, Drayton, Somerset. From the Full English archive.
Again, according to the notes in the Oxford Book of Carols “Sharp thought that the great dog of Langport was a reference to the Danes whose invasion of Langport is not yet forgotten in that town”. I’m not sure I’d give that theory much credence. According to Mudcat
In fact, this Danish raid may be mere legend, as it seems that the Vikings never penetrated that far into the West Country. Their attempted invasion began on Christmas Day 877, when Guthrum’s surprise attack on Chippenham drove Alfred into the marshes of west Somerset. Alfred set up a base at Athelney (the Island of the Nobles) a few miles west of Langport, and immediately began organising his counter-attack. In 878 he defeated Guthrum at Edington (the Anglo Saxon Chronicle identifies the Edington near the Westbury White Horse, although there is a theory that it was the Edington by the Polden Hills near Glastonbury). It was the resulting treaty between Alfred and Guthrum which divided England into the Anglo Saxon kingdom and the Danelaw.
I think the only Danish attack on the West Country was by the force which arrived at the mouth of the Parrett and was wiped out at Cannington. If they had got any further, they would have come up against Alfred himself at Athelney.
That same Mudcat page puts forwards – and debunks – a number of theories. Bear in mind when considering them that King Alfred was an actual historical character, unlike another King whose name begins with A, and who is supposed to have associations with this part of the country. Drayton is only 15 miles from Glastonbury Tor, and the danger of infection by romantic New Age twaddle is consequently very high.
We recorded this on the Magpie Lane album Wassail and the song pops back into our Christmas repertoire every two or three years. We sang it again this Christmas, but I foolishly neglected to get a recording. So, rather than wait another twelve months, here it is with a hastily-concocted concertina part.
The trees all are bare not a leaf to be seen
And the meadows their beauty have lost.
Now winter has come and ’tis cold for man and beast,
And the streams they are,
And the streams they are all fast bound down with frost.
One of my favourite seasonal songs, from the repertoire of the Copper Family – they call it simply ‘Christmas Song’. Bob Copper sings it solo on the 4 LP set A Song for Every Season but I learned it from Bob’s book of the same name. Having learned it from the printed page, and found a way of fitting the words comfortably to the tune, whenever I listen to any of the Coppers singing the song, I always find their word fit on some lines incredibly awkward.
Originally a poem written by Thomas Brerewood of Horton, Cheshire (d. 1748); part, I think, of a set of four called ‘The Seasons’. A setting by ‘Mr Lockhart’ appears in Joseph Ritson, A Select Collection of English Songs: With Their Original Airs: and a Historical Essay on the Origin and Progress of National Song. London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 3nd edn, 1813, vol III p 153: http://books.google.com/books?id=u-UVAAAAYAAJ
Lockhart’s tune doesn’t appear to be related to the one used by the Coppers or by George Townsend.
I have updated the links above to the Bodleian Broadside site, which has been been revamped since Malcolm wrote that. Here is ‘The Timid Hare’ from a broadside published between 1858 and 1861 by “John Bebbington, Printer, 31, Oldham Road, Manchester. Sold by J. Beaumont, 176, York Street, Leeds”.
The Timid Hare: mid-nineteenth century broadside from the Bodleian collection.
All the versions in the Roud Index are from Sussex or Surrey. Although some have different verses to the Coppers none, as far as I can see, retains the second verse from the original poem, which begins “While the peasant inactive stands shivering with cold”. The people who kept this song alive presumably knew that “peasants” rarely had the chance to be inactive (and had more sense than to be so on a freezing cold day).
This song has been the closing number at our Magpie Lane Christmas concerts (well, the one before the totally spontaneous encore, at any rate) since I first played one in December 1994. It was on our CD Wassail recorded and released the following year (and due to be re-released next year, with luck, having been unavailable for some time). And I never tire of it. Below you’ll find two recordings from Christmas 1993. It seemed appropriate to include the recording from the Holywell in Oxford, as that is where the band has played almost every year since 1993; but there’s also one from Woking, where we were joined by former member Marguerite Hutchinson on vocals and Northumbrian pipes.
On behalf of the band, enjoy the rest of Christmas and have, as the song says, a joyful New Year.
Now Christmas is come and our song is almost done
For we soon shall have the turn of the year.
So fill up your glasses and let your health go round,
For I wish you all,
For I wish you all a joyful New Year.
The Trees are All Bare
Magpie Lane recorded at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 14th December 2013.
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Ian Giles – vocal
Jon Fletcher – bouzouki, vocal
Sophie Thurman – cello, vocal
Mat Green – fiddle
Magpie Lane recorded at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 7th December 2013.
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina
Ian Giles – vocal
Marguerite Hutchinson – Northumbrian small pipes, vocal
Jon Fletcher – bouzouki, vocal
Sophie Thurman – cello, vocal
Mat Green – fiddle
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