A number of our songs and carols come from West Country sources. In 1899 Frederick Scourse of Cheddar noted down six unusual carols from Tom Gilling, an old chorister. Stylistically they range from old West Gallery settings to 19th century popular non-conformist hymnody. Cheddar people cherish them today as part of their local heritage and sing them in formal choir settings. We first heard them from the late Jim Small, a Cheddar man who was a fine singer and harmonica player, and we present three of them here: See the Angelic Host, Ye People All, and Near Bethlehem. The tune of this last is a folk development of a West Gallery hymn setting, “Dunkirk”, which was first published in 1792. From other Somerset village carol traditions we sing the Dunster carol I Hear Along Our Street (words by Longfellow, still sung today in Dunster by a traditional carol party), and Away Dark Thoughts from High Ham, which has been published and revived by Eddie Upton and Folk South West, to whom much thanks. In Carlingcott, in what used to be the North Somerset coalfield, the Wesleyan chapel had a choir and orchestra for over 130 years until its closure in 1981. Their music manuscripts were examined in the 1980s by researchers Bob and Jacqueline Patten, and this is the source of our version of Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
Cecil Sharp’s song collecting exploits in Somerset are well known. Nonetheless he encountered none of the above, and probably would not have considered them as fitting his definition of folk song if he had. Of course he collected widely elsewhere in England, including Gloucestershire, where he heard a number of traditional carols. He noted several versions of The Holly and the Ivy, including what has since become the “standard” version, although its tune is very different from all others. Most singers in Gloucestershire and neighbouring Herefordshire used the tune we sing here. In Chipping Sodbury workhouse Henry Thomas gave Sharp our version of The Virgin Unspotted. Its melody derives from a hymn tune by the 18th century Dorset composer William Knapp, which was later reworked by other West Gallery composers. William Bayliss of Buckland sang Sharp the powerful On Christmas Time, a distinctive version of the carol familiar to many (to a different tune) as the “Sussex Carol”. Bayliss also sang Gloucestershire Wassail, but the version we sing here is the collated one published by Ralph Vaughan Williams in the “Oxford Book of Carols”. In his original collecting patch of Somerset, Sharp noted Somerset Wassail from the Drayton wassailers.
From slightly further afield we have Come Tune Your Cheerful Voice, a West Gallery carol published by W.A.Pickard-Cambridge in his pioneering “A Collection of Dorset Carols” (1926). We Singers Make Bold is a cheerful carol widely sung in England. Our version comes from the pub carolling traditions around Sheffield. Sweet Bells is a chorus version of “While Shepherds Watched” which was popular in non-conformist churches, particularly the Salvation Army. Today it is a favourite in the North of England brass band repertoire. A separate carol whose words were profoundly influenced by “While Shepherds Watched” is the gorgeous While Shepherds Were Watching Their Flocks by the Night, which comes to us from the singing of George Dunn of Quarry Bank, Staffordshire. You can hear recordings of his fine rendition on Topic’s “Voice of the People” Vol. 16 ( TSCD 666) and Musical Traditions’ “Chainmaker” (MTCD 317-8).
We sing two early music pieces. The well-known Boar’s Head Carol accompanied a Christmas feast at Queens College, Oxford. The fine but rarely sung last verse comes from another version found in an early 16th century manuscript at Balliol College. Mirie It Is, despite its title, is a far from merry 13th century song about the hardships of harsh winter weather.
Three other songs are also about bad weather. The Sheep ‘Neath the Snow is a superb English translation of a song from the Isle of Man, originally in Manx Gaelic. Christmas Song, beautifully and precisely evocative of winter in the countryside, comes from the peerless repertoire of Sussex’s Copper family. Scatter Your Crumbs is a poem by Punch writer and illustrator Alfred Crowquill (1804-72), which Harry Langston has set to his own tune. The poem is presented by Robert Chambers in his “Book of Days” (1869) as part of his entry for Christmas Day.
Christmas Day in the Morning, usually written in a representation of Shetland dialect as “Christmas Day Ida Moarnin”, is a Shetland fiddle tune. The title surely indicates that it was originally a tune for the “I Saw Three Ships” carol, which it fits like a glove. So we’ve re-united it with the carol.
Chris Langston learned Brightest and Best from the singing of the great Kentucky singer, writer and dulcimer player Jean Ritchie, who had it from her rich family tradition. Over the years Chris has been singing it she has developed her own distinctive version.