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.