With this, our fourth recording of traditional midwinter carols, we welcome Andy Davis to our ensemble. We find, somewhat to our surprise, that we are still finding an abundance of fresh material for our show, and we are delighted to present some of these “new” songs here.
The Ram Song is a Devon version collected by Peter Kennedy (Folksongs of Britain and Ireland). A rudimentary mummers’ play is still sometimes performed with the song in the area around Sheffield, in Yorkshire. This region is also the home of a strong local tradition of Christmas caroling in village pubs. Rolling Downward comes from this repertoire.
It was believed that the wren’s song betrayed St. Stephen, hiding from pursuit, to martyrdom. Thus on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, a wren was traditionally killed, and a group of boys would carry it in procession from house to house. Hunting the Wren is our reworking of the wrenning song found in many parts of Britain (and in America, where it survives as Billy Barlow). The Wren Boys’ Song is Irish, from James Healy’s Ballads from the Pubs of Ireland.
Over the Hill and Over the Dale is by J.M. Neale, a setting to a tune from the Piae Cantiones, a book of Latin carols compiled in Finland in 1582. Neale composed English texts for several of them, Good King Wenceslas being the best-known. Piae Cantiones also gives us The Boys’ Carol, with a translation of the original text from Elizabeth Poston’s Penguin Book of Christmas Carols.
Turning to the New World, Poston’s Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols gives us Come and I Will Sing You, from Oregon. Carol is from the pen of the Maine shape-note composer, Supply Belcher. The Cherry Tree Carol comes from the Ritchie family of Kentucky. Old Christmas is a Texas fiddle tune from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Christmas Songs.
Shooting is a visiting custom from South Carolina, described in Harnett Kane’s Southern Christmas Book. This book also describes La Guignolee, another New Year visiting custom from French communities in Missouri. We learned this English version, The Rag Dance Song, from George and Gerry Armstrong of Chicago. Pays d’ Haut is a well-known French-Canadian reel.
Finally, Welladay is from William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time. We generally perform this in trilogy with The Boar’s Head Carol and The Praise of Christmas, so we also include these here. Both are to be found in The Oxford Book of Carols, which we heartily recommend to all as the best and single most comprehensive source of carols of all kinds.
– John Roberts & Tony Barrand, August 1988