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.
I learned this song from the Watersons’ 1981 LP Green Fields and for pretty much all of the intervening 35 years it has been one of my default songs to fall back on, when I need a chorus song in a singaround or pub session.
Bert Lloyd – Topic’s go-to man for sleeve notes back in the seventies and early eighties – states in the notes for this song that it was
noted by Frank Kidson from Mrs Kate Thompson of Knaresborough.
The booklet notes for the Carthy Chronicles, which features a different Watersons recording of the song, expand on this:
Young Banker has words collected from a maidservant from the Isle of Axholme near Doncaster, set to a tune which Frank Kidson collected from Kate Thompson of Knaresborough
The Full English, of course, has the tune which Frank Kidson collected from Mrs Thompson in Knaresborough; while the words (with a slightly different tune), which were noted down by Alfred Atkinson from an unnamed singer in the Isle of Axholme – in North Lincolnshire, between Doncaster and Scunthorpe – in 1904, can be found in the 1905 Journal of the Folk-Song Society.
Other versions have been collected in Lincolnshire (by Percy Grainger), Gloucestershire (Alfred Williams and Cecil Sharp), Somerset (Sharp), and Herefordshire (Ella Leather).
I learned the song to sing with Caroline Jackson-Houlston, and it was she who typed out the words for me, almost certainly from the JFSS. Whereas the Watersons (following the collected version) have the last line of the chorus as “For my young banker I will go there”, Caroline changed this to “For my young banker I will go bare”. This seemed to make more sense in context and, she thought, was almost certainly how the line had originally been written. But in fact the broadside version (titled ‘A new song called The banking boy’) which you can see on the Bodleian’s Broadside site, also has that line as “For the young banker I will go there”.
A new song called The banking boy – 19th century ballad sheet from Broadside Ballads Online.
The young banker in this song, incidentally, is not a high-flying, cocaine-snorting, economy-destroying financial whizzkid, but “a man who made embankments, stone walls and such” (A.L.Lloyd), or perhaps “A labourer who makes or repairs the banks of waterways; spec. one who digs drains, ditches, or canals” (OED).
I learned this song from Maud Karpeles’ book, The Crystal Spring Volume 2, a copy of which I received as an eighteenth birthday gift from Cathy Lesurf and Will Ward. The song was just one of a number of good pieces collected by Cecil Sharp from the inmates of Marylebone Workhouse. This one was sung to him by William Atkinson on 19th October 1908.
You can view Sharp’s original notes on the EFDSS Full English archive. When the song was published in the 1914 Journal of the Folk-Song Society he wrote
Mr. Atkinson was born in York and plied his trade of silversmith in Sheffield and London. He learned this song from a shop-mate, Mr. Frank Habershon, a native of Sheffield, who regarded the song as a “family relic.” Mr. Habershon learned it from his father, who, in turn, had had it from his father. The song was always sung at weddings and other important family gatherings.
– no doubt because it’s such a cheerful piece!
Often known as ‘Six Dukes Went A-Fishing’, in The Crystal Spring it is given the title ‘The Duke of Bedford’. The mention of Woburn, the family seat of the Dukes of Bedford since 1547, appears to link the story firmly with that branch of the aristocracy. And a note by Lucy Broadwood in the 1914 Journal attempts to make sense of the “weird rush of waters” in the last verse:
It is possible that “Wo-burn,” which is in a neighbourhood where “woe-waters” suddenly flow – to the alarm of the superstitious – may have given rise to the idea that a bursting forth of a “woe-burn” was prophetic of disaster to the Duke of Bedford’s family.
But honesty forces her to admit that
The distinguished member of the family to whom I submitted the ballad cannot connect the story or the superstition with any of his kin.
Indeed, she concludes that the song as collected may be the combination of two separate ballads, and that the original had nothing to do with any historical Duke of Bedford. Various other nobles have been suggested, but on this Mudcat thread ballad expert Bruce Olson says quite categorically that “This is a traditional version of a broadside ballad on the death of the Duke of Grafton (son of Charles II and Barbara Villers) killed while storming Cork in 1690”. As so often, the same thread has a really valuable contribution by Malcolm Douglas, summarising the various versions, early ballad sources, and linking to sources of further information.
When I first learned this, as an impatient youth, I thought the simple 8-bar melody somewhat repetitive, and added a second strain. I’ve retained that, but just in verses 4, 8 and 10.
A few years ago I came across this song while browsing through the copy of Cecil Sharp’s Folk Words in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. I was pleased to see that Sharp had collected a couple of verses omitted from The Crystal Spring.
The courts of his father
No longer will ring
With the clink of his gold spurs
And the twang of bow string.
In chase and in tournament
A valiant knight,
Who kept his escutcheon
With honour most bright.
Initially I thought I’d have to learn these – one does not lightly pass up the chance to sing the word “escutcheon” in a folk song. But it didn’t take me long to decide that actually Ms Karpeles’ editorial judgment had been sound. The two verses don’t add anything, they’re not particularly singable, and they seemed to add an air of nineteenth century fake medievalism to the song, which had not previously been apparent. Sharp wrote
I suspect that the earlier stanzas are traditional but that the concluding four were either added by some member of the Habershon family or derived from a broadside of recent date.
And in the case of the two omitted verses I’ll have to agree with Lucy Broadwood’s comments (actually pertaining to the whole of the second half of the song)
the stamp of the early nineteenth century is on their matter and phraseology, and they are full of absurd anachronisms.
Six Dukes, as collected from William Atkinson. Cecil Sharp’s ‘Folk Tunes’ via the Full English archive.
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
In Under the Greenwood Tree Thomas Hardy describes how a bunch of church band musicians found that their services were no longer required. The same thing was happening in country churches all over the country, as reforming parsons, fired up with the evangelical zeal of the Oxford Movement – and a desire to make their parishes more respectable – got rid of the old, independent-minded musicians, and replaced them with an organ, or a harmonium, or a barrel-organ, and Hymns Ancient and Modern. In many places the old way of singing just disappeared, but it survived in carol-singing traditions in a few places, most notably in certain South Yorkshire villages and at Padstow in Cornwall. The main difference between the traditions in those places is that in Padstow they go out carol-singing in the streets, while in villages around Sheffield the carollers have found a welcome home in the pub – places like the Fountain Inn at Ingbirchworth, the Royal Hotel at Dungworth, and the Traveller’s rest at Oughtibridge.
I learned ‘Hark Hark What News’ from a wonderful LP, A People’s Carol, which featured recordings made in the 1970s by Ian Russell at those three pubs, and – in this case – the Black Bull at Ecclesfield. Like all Leader and Trailer LPs, A People’s Carol has long been unavailable, but those traditions and others from the same geographical area are represented on a CD released on the Smithsonian Folkways label, English Village Carols: Traditional Christmas Carolling from the Southern Pennines. ‘Hark Hark’ is on that CD, but it’s the earlier recording which would be one of my Desert Island Discs. Partly because of the presence of a local brass band on verses 1 and 3; but also because, as the singing dies away, a voice off-mic can be heard to say, in a broad Yorkshire accent, “grand old one!”. It is a grand old one, and that comment somehow seems to capture the value which people assign to their local community carolling traditions and, indeed, the importance of all such community traditions, whether involving song, dance, drama or bizarre old customs which are often just plain daft!
Ian Russell’s notes to the Folkways CD say that this
is the only carol to be repeated during the evening, “Hark, Hark! For latecomers.” It has been sung in the village for as long as anyone can remember. The music is attributed to John Hall of Sheffield Park, a blacksmith who dies in the poorhouse in 1794, and it was probably included in his “Selection of Sacred Music on the Nativity” performed at the Hospital Chapel, Sheffield, 26 December 1792. The text appears in broadsheets and chapbooks from the early nineteenth century, but its author is unknown.
‘The star of Bethlehem’, printed by W. Wright. (Birmingham) between 1831 and 1837; from the Bodleian collection
‘Lo! The Eastern Sages Rise’ is sung at Coal Aston in Derbyshire, but this version is derived from the way it is still sung today at Padstow. I was first introduced to the carol, and Cornish carolling traditions, by Graham Kirkham in the late 1980s. It was included on the Veteran tape Rouse, Rouse, a collection of Doc Rowe’s recordings from Padstow released in 1988. That cassette was superseded a few years later by the CD Harky, Harky. I’m not sure if that’s still available, but if it is do try to get hold of a copy, as the singing (and the songs) are quite wonderful.
The carol words were written by Jehoiada Brewer (1752?-1817), a Congregational (Independent) minister at Queen Street Congregational Church, Sheffield and Carrs Lane Congregational Chapel, Birmingham; they are set to a tune by Samuel Stanley (1767-1822) of Birmingham. The words – including some verses not retained in oral tradition – can be found on two broadsides printed in Birmingham in the first half of the nineteenth century, and available from the Bodleian Library’s Broadside collection. In both cases the song is entitled The Star of Bethlehem, and the first line is given as “Lo! the Eastern image rise”.
The carol has strong connections with Cornwall: there was a version in Ralph Dunstan’s The Cornish Song Book (1929), and Dunstan notes
This Carol was formerly very popular in the Parishes of St. Agnes, Mithian, and Perranzabuloe — and is still sung there. Variants of the tune exist, with interpolations. The version given here is from the most reliable MS. collections of 1840-1850.
It also travelled with Cornish miners to America – for instance to New Almaden in California, where many Cornish men worked in the quicksilver mines:
Besides singing in the mines, the Cornish miners would sing door to door beginning a week before Christmas. They sang songs popular in Cornwall, England, where they immigrated from, such as “Lo the Eastern Sages Rise,” “Hark What Music Fills Creation,” as well as the better known “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Afterwards, they would visit with the residents and share saffron cake and tea.
The two recordings here are hot off the press – recorded at a Magpie Lane concert at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking. The term a capella is very loosely – and often erroneously used – these days. But given the acoustics of this church, I think we really were singing a capella last night – I have certainly not needed to added any reverb to these recordings!
We were, incidentally, very pleased to be joined on stage by former Magpie Marguerite Hutchinson, who had helped to organise the concert – thanks Marguerite.
Lo! The Eastern Sages Rise
Magpie Lane, recorded the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.
Jon Fletcher, Sophie Thurman, Marguerite Hutchinson, Andy Turner, Ian Giles, Mat Green – vocals
Hark Hark What News
Magpie Lane, recorded the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, 8th December 2012.
Jon Fletcher, Sophie Thurman, Andy Turner, Ian Giles, Mat Green – vocals