Posts tagged ‘Christmas’

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

December 19, 2020

Magpie Lane at the Holywell, 2017

Today, I should have been playing two Christmas shows at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford with Magpie Lane – my favourite gigs of the year. Alas, it was not to be.

As a small consolation, Tim Healey has sent us two videos he shot at one of our Christmas gigs in 2017, and these are now on YouTube:

Tim filmed these on his phone, from the back of the hall, so they’re not super-high quality. But they do capture something of the joyful spirit of our annual Christmas concerts.

Like many others, we’re desperately looking forward to a time when it’s safe to play in public again.

 

The ‘Wren Boys’ Song’ is associated with Irish wren-hunting traditions on 26th December, St Stephen’s day – for a bit more information see www.magpielane.co.uk/sleevenotes/knock_at_the_knocker/wren_boys.htm

‘The Trees are all bare’ is from the Copper Family of Rottingdean in Sussex. We’ve recorded this twice now, on Wassail and our most recent CD, The 25th. There are two other live recordings on this blog, from December 2013 – see Week 175 – The Trees are All Bare.

 

December 7, 2020

Week 300 – Shepherds Arise

I started this blog in August 2011 and posted to it religiously, week in week out, for five years. Since then posts have been sporadic, appearing at completely irregular intervals, but I decided to retain the “Week…” prefix. In the summer I realised that I was fast approaching Week 300 and decided this should be celebrated in some way. I’m not sure what form that celebration would have taken in a normal year, but in 2020 there seemed to be only one thing to do – assemble a virtual choir. And the choice of song, once it came to me, seemed obvious: record my favourite Christmas carol, the Copper Family’s “curly tune”, ‘Shepherds Arise’.

I transcribed the song from A song for every season, added a few extra notes to Ron’s bass line, and wrote two extra harmony parts. I then sent out the score plus a midi backing track, and invited people to record themselves singing along. In terms of musical direction, all they got was “have fun, and channel your inner Copper Family / Sheffield Carols / West Gallery spirit”. And that, it would seem, is exactly what they’ve done.

So here you have the finished article, performed by a bunch of wonderful human beings who also happen to be wonderful singers.

This being folk music, singers have interpreted the written notation in slightly different ways. And – just as I hoped they would – people have sung the carol in their own individual style. The end result is not the smooth polyphony of a cathedral choir, but – to borrow a word I’ve heard Dave Townsend use in relation to choirs of the West Gallery period – heterophony. You can hear the individual singers, and it’s all the better for it. When recording stuff remotely, on your own, with a four-square backing track, there’s the danger that it all ends up sounding a bit lifeless. Not so here. I reckon we’ve captured the spirit of a really good carol-singing session – the kind of session I love to be part of, and which we’ll all be missing this year (although, as one contributor has quite rightly commented, “I ain’t never been to a pub carol-session as tight as that before!!!”).

If you fancy joining in, well, obviously you can just make up your own harmonies and sing along to this recording. But I’ve also set up a Google folder with all of the written parts, the midi track, and even a video where you can see exactly where you are in the score as you sing along (a bit like a bouncing ball video, although there isn’t actually a ball). That video can also be found at https://youtu.be/_5fooV0OPv4

In previous posts (Week 284 and  Week 285) I wrote of how my school friend Mike and I – and eventually a number of other people – used to go out “wassailing” around Ashford and Saltwood in Kent. Mike had been given a copy of the single LP A song for every season for his seventeenth birthday. We learned ‘Shepherds Arise’ from there. We sang it the first year we went out, and it remained absolutely central to our Christmas repertoire thereafter. It was in the fact the carol we had just sung when told by a usually appreciative householder “I have to say I thought that was dull as ditchwater!”. To be fair, I suspect we sang it a lot slower than we do in this recording.

Cover of the single LP version of A Song for every Season, from discogs.com

Cover of the single LP version of A Song for every Season, from discogs.com

In terms of the oral tradition, this carol is unique to the Copper Family (if you look at the VWML entries for Roud 1207 ignore the references to ‘Abraham Newland’ – that’s an error which should be corrected shortly). And so far it only seems to have turned up a few times in manuscript sources. William Adair Pickard-Cambridge (1879 – 1957) published a four-part setting in 1926, in his book A Collection of Dorset Carols. Some of the pieces in this book had been written down by his father, who had been rector of Bloxworth in Dorset. ‘Shepherds Arise’, it seems, came from an anonymously-authored manuscript from nearby Winterborne Zelston. Pickard-Cambridge may well have tidied up both the harmonies and the words. We shall never know, as the original manuscript was destroyed when his house was hit during the Blitz, in 1940. However another Dorset version has been discovered, from Puddletown, and this is safely preserved in the Dorset Record Office. This version, transcribed and edited by Rollo Woods, was printed in West Gallery Harmony: Carols & Celebrations (WGMA, 1998). And you can find another arrangement on the Roding Music website.

(Information in the preceding paragraph based on the Wikipedia article on ‘Shepherds Arise’, the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website, and Francis Roads’ article on Pickard-Cambridge’s Dorset carols).

 

I was delighted to be joined on this recording by friends from various parts of my life. Most of the contributors have sung with at least one other person here, but we’ve definitely never all been in the same room together. There are people who, in a normal year, I would sing with regularly, with Magpie Lane and/or Christminster Singers. There are people I’ve never sung with before, except possibly in a pub session. And there are people who I sang with often back in the 1970s/early 1980s, but very rarely since.

To everyone who took part, an enormous, heartfelt, Thank You.

I’d like to mention in particular those people who rely on music for their income. Like everyone in the arts world, 2020 has been a disastrous year for them. Do check out the links I’ve given below – you might find a few tasty CDs you could buy as presents for friends or family, or even just for yourself. Every little helps.

 

Several of the singers on this recording are, or have been, associated with the Oxford folk scene in one way or another.

Jon Boden is one of several people here who, I’m sure, need no introduction. He now lives in the 21st century folk Mecca that is Sheffield – indeed, his nearest pub is one with a flourishing carol-singing tradition. But he has strong links with Oxford, having lived for several years in a room above the Half Moon, the city’s best known session pub. It was of course Jon’s A Folk Song A Day project which originally inspired me to start this blog, and it’s chastening to think, as I celebrate 300 posts, that Jon did considerably more than that in just one year.

https://www.jonboden.com/ – and look out for the 2021 Spiers and Boden reunion.

Jackie Oates and I were both involved in a project put together by Paul Sartin for the 2011 Broadstairs Folk Festival. She moved to Oxford shortly after that, and has since become a leading light in the local folk scene. In 2019 she was Musician in Residence at the Museum of English Rural Life, part of the University of Reading, where I work. Some of the songs to come out of that residency were included on her most recent CD, Needle Pin, Needle Pin, recorded with John Spiers.

https://www.jackieoates.co.uk/

Jim Causley is a big champion of Devon traditions, so it’s entirely appropriate that I first saw him singing at the Sidmouth Festival. We first met, I think, at a pub session in Bampton, Oxfordshire, and over the years our paths have crossed at various folk clubs and festivals. Jim has kept himself busy during lockdown, releasing the entirely home-made Cyprus Well II, and with a new CD, Devonshire Roses, due for release soon.

https://www.jimcausley.co.uk/

George Sansome and I have met only once, and briefly at that. He’s singer and guitarist with the excellent Granny’s Attic and earlier this year released a really good eponymous solo album. Through various online exchanges it emerged that I really like his stuff and, rather gratifyingly, he’s a fan of both Magpie Lane and this blog.

https://georgesansome.co.uk/

Ian Blake was the original clarinettist in the Mellstock Band, and we got to know each other while recording the album Under the Greenwood Tree. Ian has lived in Australia for many years, but that doesn’t stop him from playing with the group SANS, whose other members hail from the UK, Finland and Armenia.

https://www.ianblake.net/

Sophie Thurman is a fellow Magpie Laneite. Round about now we’d have been limbering up for a series of Christmas gigs, the highlight, as ever, being our afternoon and evening concerts at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. That’s one of my favourite days of the year. But, much as I miss playing gigs with Magpie Lane, what I’ve really missed this year is meeting up with the rest of the band, and the enormous fun we all have, whether we’re performing, recording, or just rehearsing.

Some people reading this will already have all the Magpie Lane CDs. But did you know you could also get a restorative shot of Sophie’s vocals by buying a CD by Jenkinson’s Folly?

Tom Bower was a founder member of both Magpie Lane and the Christminster Singers. And he provided the magnificent cover illustration for our most recent Christmas CD, The 25th.

https://sites.google.com/site/worktombower/

Marguerite Hutchinson was Tom’s replacement in Magpie Lane, appearing on Six for Gold and Knock at the Knocker. She returned to play Northumbrian smallpipes on The 25th.

She’s joined here by her husband Giles Hutchinson, and her niece Lucy Davies.

Caroline Butler sang on the Under the Greenwood Tree album, and is now a fully-fledged member of the Mellstock Band. She’s also a member of the The Oxford Waits. We sing together in the Christminster Singers, and have been playing together in the dance band Geckoes for 30 years. Caroline is also an accomplished artist.

http://carolineritson.co.uk/

Becca Heddle is another member of the Christminster Singers, as well as being an award-winning writer of books for children.

 

I’m particularly pleased to be joined on this recording by the members of my first ever folk group, Gomenwudu.

Mike Eaton was my best friend at school and, as detailed in various posts here over the years, played a vital role in turning me on to folk music: he lent me his Dad’s copy of Below the Salt around this time of the year in 1975, and then he introduced me to the Copper Family.

Jonathan Jarvis was in the year below Mike and me, but we got to know each other through school choir and orchestra (where he was a much more accomplished performer than Mike and me). The three of us  were talking one lunchtime just inside the main school doors, when some spotty little oik from the third year – no doubt trying to get in from the playground when school rules said only senior boys were allowed in – commented “you look like three twins”. I don’t know if Jon remembers that, but I was pleased to find recently that it’s as fresh in Mike’s mind as it is in mine.

We got to know Gill Wren through her brother, who was in our class at school, and when we discovered that she liked folk music, she was quickly invited into the group.

As was Alison Tebbs. Her family home was absolutely at the centre of our social world when Mike and I were in the sixth form. Her wonderfully hospitable parents George and Beth put up with the presence of countless teenage boys in their living room and kitchen, talking too loud, making rubbish jokes, drinking famously dreadful coffee, and listening to music (there must have been others, but I particularly remember Dylan, the Beatles, Steeleye, Lindisfarne, Sex Pistols, Horslips, and Barclay James Harvest). At the end of the evening, no matter how many of us there were, George would pack us all into the back of his estate car and drive us home.

When making her recording for this project, Alison was joined by her daughter, Zoe Tebbs.

Gomenwudu singing at my 18th Birthday party, 1978

Gomenwudu singing at my 18th Birthday party, 1978.

And – last but not least – I’m joined by family members Carol Turner and Joe Turner, both of whom have made previous appearances on this blog.

Carol and I have been members of the Christminster Singers since the beginning. Carol sang harmony vocals (“spine-tingling” vocals according to Dave Arthur, and I’m not going to disagree) on my first, and so far only, solo album; and in the summer of 2012 she depped with Magpie Lane for an unwell Ian Giles at a couple of festivals.

Joe has also depped for Mat Green with Magpie Lane and, in 2010 stood in for Paul Sartin at a few Bellowhead gigs. More often playing electric guitar or drums in recent years, you can check out Joe’s band Junk Whale at https://junkwhale.bandcamp.com/music.

A massive Thank You once more to all of them.

And, finally, many thanks to the Copper Family whose treasury of songs and singing traditions continue to be a joy and an inspiration.

 

Shepherds Arise

Alison Tebbs, Andy Turner, Becca Heddle, Carol Turner, Caroline Butler, George Sansome, Giles Hutchinson, Gill Wren, Ian Blake, Jackie Oates, Jim Causley, Joe Turner, Jon Boden, Jonathan Jarvis, Lucy Davies, Marguerite Hutchinson, Mike Eaton, Sophie Thurman, Tom Bower, Zoe Tebbs – vocals.

 

 

Detail of a miniature of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the De Lisle Psalter. Copyright the British Library.

Detail of a miniature of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the De Lisle Psalter (Arundel 83 II). Copyright the British Library.

 

 

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 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

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

December 24, 2018

Week 278 – Stannington

Regular visitors to this blog will probably be aware of my fondness for the carolling tradition that continues to this day in the villages around Sheffield. A few weekends ago I made my first ever visit to a Sheffield carolling session – the Sunday lunchtime sing at the Royal Hotel in Dungworth. The pub was (literally) full to overflowing, the singing was lusty and joyful, and it felt so good to be able to join in old favourites like ‘Hark Hark What News’, ‘Jacob’s Well’ and ‘Diadem’ in their proper surroundings. So, my first visit, but definitely not my last.

I’d previously heard this piece on the double CD The Theme, The Song, The Joy, which I reviewed for last year’s Folk Music Journal. The album contains recordings made over the years at the biennial Festival of Village Carols organised by Ian Russell, including a 2014 recording of ‘Stannington’ sung by carollers from the Royal Hotel, with Manny Grimsley taking the solo. To be honest the song hadn’t made much impression on me, but the day after going to Dungworth I found it was lodged in my head. So I dug out the words, worked out the chords, took it down a tone and worked out the chords again, and decided I’d try to get a decent recording made in time for Christmas. Give it another year and I might be more on top of it, but this is a blog, not a CD – spontaneity rather than perfection is the name of the game.

Stannington being sung at the Royal Hotel, Dungworth.

Stannington being sung at the Royal Hotel, Dungworth.

I’m indebted to Dave Eyre for providing some background information on this song, via a comment left on Jon Boden’s A Folk Song a Day entry for December 21st 2010

Ian Russell writes in the book which accompanied the Dungworth CD [i.e. Hark, Hark! What News]:

Central to the tradition since the 1950’s usually as a solo. Written by the late Mina Dyson (born Gee – 1890 – also wrote “Bradfield” in 1971). Tune (c. 1945) originally set to anniversary hymn “God Send You Many Days as Sweet as This” by Edward Lockton. Word “Sing All Ye People” written for Christmas 1952.

I’d like to add that this was always sung by a man called Wilf Daff and Brian Shuel has two photographs of his doing just that, one in front of the dartboard and one next to the organ with David Smith playing He was a remarkable tenor singer and when people joined in at the last verse – often at a cry of “altogether” – his voice soared over the crowd. Truly memorable.

When Wilf stopped coming the song was taken over by Billy Mills who was one of the singers who came from the Lodge Moor area when David Smith began playing.

Happy Christmas one and all! Here’s to hope, and joy, and peace.

Stannington

Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

December 15, 2018

New Magpie Lane CD – ‘The 25th’

This afternoon and evening I’ll be playing with Magpie Lane at our annual Christmas concerts in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. 25 years ago, when the first Magpie Lane Christmas gigs took place, I was actually in the audience as my wife was very heavily pregnant (our son Tom was in fact born a few days later on Christmas Day – hence my tune ‘The Christmas Baby’ which appeared on our Wassail CD). But I enjoyed watching that gig, and have never failed to enjoy playing at the Holywell over the succeeding years – in fact it’s one of the highlights of my year.

The first Magpie Lane CD, The Oxford Ramble, was released in April 1993 and the band’s very first public appearance came a couple of weeks later.

And we’ve just released our tenth album, which celebrates not only the band’s twenty-fifth anniversary,  but also those 25 years of Christmas concerts at the Holywell.

Cover of Magpie Lane CD The 25th. Cover illustration by founder member Tom Bower.

Cover of Magpie Lane CD The 25th.
Cover illustration by founder member Tom Bower.

Like Wassail (1995) and Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell (2006) the  new album features songs and tunes suitable for Winter and the Christmas season. Many are carols drawn from English sources – from the West Gallery era, from the notebooks of the early twentieth century collectors, or from the vibrant living carolling tradition of South Yorkshire. As you’ll see below, live versions of several of these carols have featured on this blog over the last few years (but of course these new studio recordings are much better!).

The earliest piece on the album, ‘Angelus ad Virginem’, is from the thirteenth century – and is performed in a way that acknowledges the original links between carolling and dancing. ‘In Winter Time’, on the other hand, composed by guitarist Jon Fletcher’s father, is a starkly beautiful carol which deserves to be ranked alongside the finest examples of twentieth century English carol compositions.

There are also secular songs. Both George Wither’s seventeenth century ‘Christmas Caroll’ and Pete Joshua’s modern ‘I am Christmas Time’ celebrate the good things about Christmas – eating, drinking, and having a good time with friends and family.

The album is available to order now from the Magpie Lane website. Get an order in asap, and we’ll do our best to make sure your copy arrives before Christmas.

 

Tracklist

  1. Sweet Chiming Bells
    a live version of this featured as 
  2. Newton’s Double
    a live recording of this carol appeared as part of 
  3. Gabriel’s Message
  4. A Christmas Caroll
  5. As Shepherds Watched their Fleecy Care
    for a live recording see Week 171 – As Shepherds Watched Their Fleecy Care
  6. Christmas Carousing / Mummers’ Jig and Reel
  7. Sellwood Molyneux’ Carol
    previously featured here in 
  8. In Winter Time
  9. Angelus ad Virginem / I Saw Three Ships
  10. I am Christmas Time
  11. On a Cold Winter’s Day / Down in yon Forest
    a preliminary sketch of On a Cold Winter’s Day was posted on my Squeezed Out blog: https://squeezedout.wordpress.com/2016/12/29/on-a-cold-winters-day-when-ye-cold-winter-nights-were-frozen/
  12. Hark Hark What News
    for a live version see 
  13. A Christmas Tale / Christmas Day in the Morning
    I posted a solo recording of the first tune on my Squeezed Out blog: https://squeezedout.wordpress.com/2017/12/20/the-christmas-tale/
  14. The Trees are all Bare
    our regular Christmas show-closer – check out  for a live recording

 

Listen to sample tracks