Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Singing in the pub: The Sheffield Carols

Last Friday night, I went to the other side of town and sang carols in a pub.
As my dear readers will know, I'm not at all keen on christianity. However, I do like a good sing, and I only learned last year that I live in a town that boasts a unique folk event, the Sheffield Carols.

These are not any old carols; they are traditional words, but sung to locally-written tunes, often unusual and complex, with four-part harmonies and so forth. The groups are very local, and pub-based. Each group writes its own tunes, and works them up to a carol season that starts  in November.  (http://www.localcarols.org.uk/sings.php )  

The Old Harrow hosts other folk traditions too, including Sword Dancing (http://www.oldharrow.co.uk/Sword-Dancing.php) . An idea of a carol session can be got at http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/sheffield-folk-carols-from-church-to-pub/6609.html and  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87PFoh9VJP8.

On Friday, the opening song was 'While Shepherds Watched', but sung to the tune of 'On Ilkley Moor Baht 'at'. Try it, it works! The song booklet, or 'Words', as it's called, boasts eleven versions of that carol, each with a different tune. The way the lines are repeated and sung has echoes of familiar, older forms, such as chorus lines in groups of 3, the first two lines the same, the third different, maybe splitting between male and female voices.

One of the inspiring things about this tradition is the way it mythologizes the local area. Tunes in the song sheets have local names, like Malin Bridge or Holmfirth Anthem, and more mysterious names like Spout Cottage or Egypt. If you'd been brought up singing that carol, you would never be able to pass Malin Bridge without thinking of the tune, the words, or maybe even some transcendent moment.

Such things charge the world with significance. Every bend of the river has a name, every town has a tune. It would be wonderful if we had a corpus of pagan/heathen songs of this quality to sing at the seasonal festivals. And communities, groups that cared enough to work them up into something worth showing off to the whole village/suburb. Choral singing is one of our species' most delightful skills, one of the bases of collective joy, and just the kind of thing we need to make life better in the straitened times to come.


  1. Yup. I avoid O'Hare like the plague. I route through Dallas Fort Worth if I have to, even if it adds an extra 2 hours to the flight!
    The lack of decent chocolate in the country reflects the civilization. However, this has partially been fixed in places such as Seattle, which is a mecca for Artisan chocolate. (I'll send you some.) x

  2. My friend Geoff hasn't been able to post on here. Here's our conversation.

    Thanks Geoff, glad you liked it.

    I'm starting collecting items for a blog series on things that enhance life and that don't rely on money and corporations. A kind of 'cool things to do while the world economy collapses'.

    Singing is definitely one of them.
    And sex, and home-cooked (or and/or grown) food, home-brewed beer and mead, learning a language, making things from scrap wood and metal, hosting discussion groups / planning groups / fitness or martial arts groups, meditation .......

    Let's continue this discussion on the blog, it raises its profile.
    Ideas about heathen singing...


    From: Geoff Sumner
    Date: Wed, 14 Dec 2011 14:59:57 +0000
    To: Dave Lee
    Subject: blog on singing


    I liked your recent blog on "singing". For sure there's a deep need in humans. I feel it very strongly this time of year, even to the point of going to a candle light service at church the other night to sing carols. The whole thing's been hijacked by xianity. I couldn't help being struck the simultaneous feelings of by how awful the lyrics/message were, but how good it felt to sing. Why not take it back? Your conclusions were especially provocative.


  3. Resources for pagan/heathen singing:
    - Norman Iles, 'The Pagan Carols Restored'

    Anyone know anything else?

  4. Mekachu - thanks for your advice, I shall heed it!
    Gifts of chocolate always welcome!

  5. I've seen some "pagan carols" websites, but the songs aren't very good really - I think much work remains to be done.

  6. I know what you mean Geoff. I guess the first thing to do would be to collect together all the existing carols, and seasonal folk songs, and see what can be done with them.
    I'll open a thread on this when the Gild Forums are up and running again.