In the summer of 1975, dance musicians Fred Breunig and Steve Woodruff moved to southern Vermont and teamed up with the singing duo of John Roberts and Tony Barrand. Nowell Sing We Clear was first performed in December of that same year. I conceived of it as a traveling road show which could visit small communities on a regular basis to broaden the range of music and custom to which people had access in the joyous midwin ter season. The program explores and reveals the active and still vital themes of the birth of Jesus and the celebration of the return of the light at the winter solstice. The combined interests and skills of the performers in contra and morris dancing and in ballads and bawdry afforded an unusual approach to Christmas music.
– Tony Barrand.
Known for their lively and entertaining presentations of English folk songs, John Roberts and Tony Barrand have performed at important festivals, colleges, and coffee houses throughout the United States, Canada, and their native England. Accomplished self-taught folklorists, they typically sing ballads and songs of the sea, of drinking situations, of industrial strife and much more, arranging the material thematically to illustrate the social history and the lives of the people who made up the songs. Performing in unaccompanied two-part harmony, they regularly draw upon a variety of instruments including Anglo-German and English concertinas, button accordion, banjo, guitar, and a variety of rhythm instruments such as bones and spoons. They met at Cornell University in 1968 while studying for Ph.D’s in Psychology. After a number of years teaching at Marlboro College in southern Vermont, John Roberts is now a full-time musician; Dr. Tony Barrand teaches psychology, folklore and aesthetics through the University Professors at Boston University, recently co-edited a revised and expanded fourth edition of the shape-note hymnal Northern Harmony: Plain Tunes, Fuging Tunes and Anthems from the Early and Contemporary New England Singing Tradition and authored a major book on seasonal dance customs, Six Fools and a Dancer: The Timeless Way of the Morris and a compilation of sword dance notations, Longsword Dances…as Compiled by Ivor Allsop(All available from Carriage House Books).
In thirty-one years as a professional team, they have recorded with a number of companies, including Front Hall, Folk Legacy, Swallowtail, and National Geographic. Their most recent production is Heartoutbursts: English Folksongs Collected by Percy Grainger. They recently presented a concert of songs inspired by an exhibit of Maxfield Parrishís paintings at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Brooklyn Musuem of Art. They have also performed settings of Rudyard Kiplingís verse at his restored house, Naulakha, in Dummerston, VT. It is recorded as Naulakha Redux: Songs of Rudyard Kipling (available from Golden Hind Records). Both John and Tony were founding members of the celebrated Marlboro Morris and Sword dance teams which perform the seasonal display dances in communities in Windham County, Vermont. John lives in Schenectady, NY, and Tony in Brattleboro, VT.
Fred Breunig is one of the most influential leaders of the New England contra dance movement and a major resource for the increasingly large following atttracted to the English Playford-style country dances. He has taught workshops and called dances throughout the U.S. and Canada and is a well-known figure leading dances to the accompaniment of his own fiddle playing. A printer by trade, he makes his home and runs his business, Press On! in Putney, VT, and maintains his regular community dance in East Putney on the last friday of each month. Fred has recorded with John and Tony on Front Hall and Folk-Legacy, and was a contributing musician to the influential F&W String Band albums of New England contra dance tunes.
Andy Davis is known nationally as one of the finest piano accompanists for contra dance music and is an outstanding performer on piano accordion and banjo. He teaches music in several schools in Brattleboro where he makes his home and runs the successful operation of New England Dancing Masters, with recordings and publications which make New England dance forms available for use in schools. Andy is a much-loved music teacher in local elementary schools and a leader of popular community dances. In addition to the Nowell recordings, he and guiitarist, Sandy Bradley are the accompanists on Laurie Andresí widely praised accordion, Fantastic Hornpipe.
2010 marks the 36th season of the Pageant of Midwinter Carols tour. Performers John Roberts and Tony Barrand, are widely known for their concerts and recordings of English ballads and songs with New England dance musicians, Fred Breunig and Andy Davis. Much of the singing is 4-part a cappella harmony, with carols worth dancing to, performed by fiddle, accordion, concertina, banjo and piano. The show begins with a fresh look at the telling of the story of Christ’s birth through unfamiliar folk carols. The show ends with even less familiar songs associated with midwinter visiting customs such as “Hunting the Wren,” the “Derby Ram,” and “Wassailing on New Year’s Eve.
Drawn mostly from English-language folk traditions, the songs tell both a version of the events and characters involved in the Christmas story and detail the customs that make up the twelve magical days following the return of the light at the winter solstice. The pageant is also stamped with the energetic dance band sound of fiddle, button accordion, electric piano, drums, and concertina and the audience encouraged to sing along. An unusual treat is the enactment of a Mummers Play.
The ancient rite of wassailing trees was well known in Devonshire, Herefordshire and in other parts of the West Country of England (and elsewhere? please let me know). It generally took place on Twelfth Night (January 5th), or sometimes on 17th January, known as Old Twelfth Night. Farmers and their families would feast on hot cakes and cider, then they would go into the orchard with more “supplies.”
A cider-soaked cake is laid in the fork of a tree and then more cider is splashed on it. The men fire their guns into the tree and bang on pots and pans while the rest of the people bow their heads and sing the special “Wassail Song.” This custom is said to ward off bad spirits from the orchard and encourages the good spirits to provide a bountiful crop for the following year.
In other traditions, the men of the village went out to the orchards carrying the wassail bowl, to alternately serenade and browbeat the apple trees. There were songs, dances and libations (for tree and man alike) until finally, in frustration, the trees would be threatened with the axe if they did not produce well in the coming year. A newspaper account of 1851 documents Devonshire men firing guns (charged only with powder) at the trees.
This custom was kept up till the end of the last century. Brand relates that in 1790 a Cornish man informed him it was the custom for the Devonshire people on the eve of Twelfth Day to go after supper into the orchard with a large milk-pan full of cyder with roasted apples in it. Each person took what was called a clayen cup, i.e. an earthenware cup full of cyder, and standing under each of the more fruitful trees, sung —
“Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
After drinking part of the contents of the cup, he threw the rest, with the fragments of the roasted apples, at the trees, amid the shouting of the company. Another song sung on such occasions was
“Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow
Hats full! caps full!
And my pockets full, too, huzza!”
It is supposed that the custom was a relic of the sacrifice to Pomona [the Roman Goddess of Fruits].
The American author Henry David Thoreau also cites Brand’s Popular Antiquities in his essay Wild Apples: The History of the Apple Tree (published in the Atlantic Monthly, November, 1862), although he states that the practice took place on Christmas Eve, not Twelfth Night. However, he adds the note of an old practice of “apple-howling” in various counties of England on New Year’s Eve where a troop of boys visits different orchards, and, encircling the trees, chant the following:
Stand fast, root! bear well, top!
Pray God send us a good howling crop:
Every twig, apples big;
Every bough, apples enow!
Then then shout in chorus, with one accompanying them on a cow’s horn, and rap the trees with their sticks (this being called “wassailing” the trees):
WASSAIL the trees, that they may bear
You many a plum and many a pear:
For more or less fruits they will bring,
As you do give them wassailing.
According to a friend of this site, Ellen, wassailing of trees is still practiced in the Gloucestershire region of England.
This practice echoes one practiced by Romanians. As the housewife kneaded special holiday dough in the kitchen, her husband would pass through the house on his way to the orchard, in a vile temper. She followed anxiously behind as he passed from tree to tree, threatening to cut down each barren one. She would urge him to especially spare this one or that, saying: “Oh no, I’m sure this tree will be as heavy with fruit next year as my hands are with dough this day.”
Wassailing As “Luck Visits” And Subsequent Traditions
It was only later that these traditions became associated with “luck visits” made around the neighborhood, together with general merry-making (and, as Rev. Bradley pointed out, “fortified by copious quantities of alcohol”). Soon, these traditions would merge with the waits who traveled the streets of the cities (and who were paid to sing and play during the holidays). And voila! we have a tradition: wassailing.
William Henry Husk, writing in 1868, reproduced the Wassailers’ Carol (whose well known first verse begins: “Here we come a wassailing”), noting that its last verse was the same as the first verse of a carol reproduced by Ritson in Ancient Songs and Ballads (1829), which, in turn, may have been copied from a source during the reigns of James 1 (1566-1625) or Charles 1 (1600-1649). The verse was:
Good master and mistress,
While you’re sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children,
Who are wandering in the mire.
That being the case, the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols (OBC) suggest that Shakespeare (1564-1616) may have heard that fragment sung outside of his house at Christmas.
The wassail was not, however, absolutely confined to the Christmas season, but was used to indicate any convivial and festive meetings. Sandys quotes Shakespeare’s Hamlet: —
“The king doth wake to-night, and takes his rouse,
Indeed, says Sandys, the meetings were themselves called after them, again quoting Shakespeare, this time from Love’s Labor Lost: —
“He is wit’s peddler, and retails his wares
At wakes and wassels, meetings, markets, fairs.”
Later, the meaning of wassail would become more narrow. By the way, the editors of the OBC suggest that verses two, six and seven of The Wassail Song “are not suitable when the carol is sung in church, but they give a vivid picture of the Waits of old times.”
But the discussion of just one song barely scratches the surface of the rich lode of this tradition. Concerning this genre, Edith Rickert writes in 1910:
“The oldest carol known (cf. Appendix I. p. 132 – Seignors Ore Entendez À Nus; translation from Sandys: Lordings, From A Distant Home), although Anglo-Norman, embodies the Saxon phrases used in pledging. The former of these has survived in the refrain of the initial carol of this group (Wassail, Wassail, Out of the Milk Pail), which is otherwise highly religious. In the seventeenth century the wassail was a definite institution — the carrying about of a bowl of spiced ale from house to house to drink healths in expectation of a contribution. Nowadays the utterance of a “Merry Christmas’ is often judged sufficient for the tip. Some of the poems here included are mere drinking-songs, but they were probably sung as carols at Christmas.”
The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Old English “Waes hael” — that is, “Good Health!” The correct response was “Drinc hael.” In Best-Loved Christmas Carols, Clancy and Studwell notes that the custom of wassailing may go back to the fifth century century, although the first mention in print was in 1140; Vortigern, mentioned below, dates to the early fifth century. Sandys believes that the custom could date to the third century.
Dr. Rickert’s mention of “used in pledging” is especially interesting. William Sandys, in his 1853 work Christmas-tide includes the following passages which bear on this theme:
The wassail bowl, of which the skull of an enemy would thus appear to have formed their beau idéal, is said to have been introduced by them. Rowena, the fair daughter of Hengist, presenting the British king, Vortigern, with a bowl of wine, and saluting him with “Lord King Wass-heil;” to which he answered, as he was directed, “Drine heile,” and saluted her then after his fashion, being much smitten with her charms. The purpose of father and daughter was obtained; the king married the fair cup-bearer, and the Saxons obtained what they required of him.
This is said to have been the first wassail in this land; but, as it is evident that the form of salutation was previously known, the custom must have been much older among the Saxons; and, indeed, in one of the histories, a knight, who acts as a sort of interpreter between Rowena and the king, explains it to be an old custom among them.
By some accounts, however, the Britons are said themselves to have had their wassail bowl, or lamb’s wool — La Mas Ubhal, or day of apple fruit — as far back as the third century, made of ale, sugar (whatever their sugar was), toast and roasted crabbs, hissing in the bowl; to which, in later times, nutmeg was added.
The followers of Odin and Thor drank largely in honor of their pagan deities; and, when converted, still continued their potations, but in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and Saints; and the early missionaries were obliged to submit to this substitution, being unable to abolish the practice, which afterwards degenerated into drinking healths of other people, to the great detriment of our own. Strange! that even from the earliest ages, the cup-bearer should be one of the principal officers in the royal presence, and that some of the high families take their name from a similar office.
Sandys writes that one of the earliest wassail songs is that introduced by Dissimulation, disguised as a religious person, in Bale’s old play of Kynge Johan [1166-1216], about the middle of the sixteenth century [e.g., circa 1538]. He brings in the cup by which the king is poisoned, stating that it “passith malmesaye, capryck, tyre, or ypocras,” and then sings —
“Wassayle, wassayle out of the mylke payle,
Wassayle, wassayle as white as my nayle,
Wassayle, wassayle in snowe, froste, and hayle,
Wassayle, wassayle with partriche and rayle,
Wassayle, wassayle that muclie doth avayle,
Wassayle, wassayle that never wylle fayle.”
In Caxton’s Chronicle [circa 1480] the account of the death of King John represents the cup to have been filled with good ale; and the monk bearing it, knelt down, saying, “Syr, wassayll for euer the dayes so all lyf dronke ye of so good a cuppe.”
As we will see, there were many traditions associated with the practice of wassailing, reflecting the differing traditions of individual communities and regions.
In medieval times, as noted by Keyte and Parrott, in The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols, wassailers had become were rural luck visitors who toasted householders from their communal bowl. Elizabeth Poston stated that it was a custom connected with children and the Waits, and which took place between Christmas and the New Year. Ian Bradley, quoting Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, explains that the wassail bowl was formerly carried about by young women on New-year’s eve, who went from door to door in their several parishes singing a few couplets of homely verses composed for the purposes, and presented the liquor to the inhabitants of the house where they called, expecting a small gratuity in return.
As the song states, wassailers wouldn’t object to a bit of beer or cheese either.
Mumming is also an ancient pagan custom that was an excuse for people to have a party at Christmas! It means ‘making diversion in disguise’. The tradition was that men and women would swap clothes, put on masks and go visiting their neighbours, singing, dancing or putting on a play with a silly plot. The leader or narrator of the mummers was dressed as Father Christmas.
The custom of Mumming might go back to Roman times, when people used to dress up for parties at New Year. It is thought that, in the U.K., it was first done on St. Thomas’s day or the shortest day of the year.
Different types of entertainments were done in different parts of the U.K. In parts of Durham, Yorkshire and Devon a special sword dance was performed. There were also different names for mumming around the U.K. too. In Scotland it was known as ‘Gusards’ in Somerset, ‘Mumping’ in Warwickshire or ‘Thomasing’ and ‘Corning’ in Kent.
In Medieval times it had turned into an excuse for people to go begging round the houses and committing crimes. It became so bad that Henry VIII, made a law saying that anyone that was mumming wearing a mask would be put in prison for 3 months!
One poem that people said when mumming was:
Christmas is coming, the beef is getting fat,
Please drop a penny in the old mans hat.
Over the years, this was changed into a very similar poem that is said by some carol singers today:
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old mans hat.
The early settlers from the U.K. took the custom of Mumming to Canada. It is known as Murmuring in Canada, but is banned in most places because people used it as an excuse for begging.
Mumming is still done in parts of the UK, USA and Canada.
03 The Cherry Tree Carol
04 intro to While Shepherds Watch
05 While Shepherds Watch
06 intro to Coventry Carol
07 Coventry Carol
08 intro to Divers & Lazarus
09 Divers & Lazarus
10 intro to King Herod & the Cock & The Miraculous
11 King Herod and the Cock – The Miraculous
12 intro to Joys Seven
13 Joys Seven
14 intro to The Bitter Withy
15 The Bitter Withy
16 intro to The Boar’s Head Carol
17 The Boar’s Head Carol
18 intro to Lord of the Dance
19 Lord of the Dance
20 program break, credits
21 Green Grow the Rushes-O
22 Intro to The Cutty Wren
23 The Cutty Wren
24 Intro to Wassailing
25 Somerset Wassail
26 intro to Pace Egging Song
27 Pace Egging Song
28 Intro to Queen Mary’s Men
29 Queen Mary’s Men
30 Intro to Sword Dancing
31 Sword Dance Tunes from the Village of Sleights
32 Intro to Glousteshire Wassail
33 Glousteshire Wassail
34 Intro to Apple Tree Wassail & Darby Ram
35 Apple Tree Wassail & Darby Ram
36 Closing remarks
37 The Wren / The King / Joy, Health, Love and Peace
38 outro, credits