Skip to main content

The notes of Christmas past

Carol-singing in South Yorkshire used to be a rollicking affair. Then the Victorians stopped the party. But the tradition is being revived.

When I was a boy in South Yorkshire, each Christmas morning, while my mother was preparing the dinner, I would go with my father to visit my grandmother. Other uncles and aunts would gather there, and we would stand on the doorstep and sing carols. The great favourite was one that began with the lines, "Hark! Hark! What news those angels bringGlad tidings of a new born King". It had a terrific bass part, lustily rendered by my Uncle Charles, and a chorus with the parts chasing each other: "Born of aI Born of a maidI A virginI A virgin pureI Born withoutI Born without sinI From guilt secuuuuuuuureI" When I joined the church choir, I sometimes wondered why I never found this carol in any of the standard books. Nor, for that matter, did I come across others that we sang - "How Beautiful upon the Mountains", an apparently infinite number of little-known tunes to "While Shepherds Watched", and my aunt Mildred's favourite, "Hail, Smiling Morn".

Time went on and I moved away. My solo singing and choral activities encompassed all of the conventional repertoire, and I thought no more of "Hark! Hark!" and the others. Then, a year or two ago, an old school friend phoned to ask me whether I would like to make the trip north to sing carols in The Black Bull pub at Ecclesfield, the village just north of Sheffield where we went to school.

Thus did I discover that the carols we used to sing at my grandmother's were part of a very local tradition of much-loved robust tunes, many locally composed. Pushed out of the church repertoire by Victorian reformers, they had been kept alive for more than 100 years - in public houses, by itinerant carollers, and in family sing-songs.

At The Black Bull, for example, carol singing begins on Thursday nights as soon as Remembrance Sunday is past. Over the weeks, the repertoire is rehearsed by the veterans and learned by newcomers, until by Christmas it is once more firmly established. The same happens, at other times in the week, at The Traveller's Rest in Oughtibridge, The Blue Ball in Worrall, The Fountain in Ingbirchworth, and in other places found within a well-defined geographical area north-west of Sheffield. Each place does the job in its own way - The Traveller's has a pianist; The Blue Ball an electronic organ; The Black Bull carols are unaccompanied.

The basics, though, are the same - a room packed to, and beyond, capacity with a cross-section of the population, standing, sitting, some with drinks, some without. Carols are struck up and sung, those who are most familiar with them taking the lead. There is some part singing - the bass, particularly, always comes across well. The most striking impression, though, is of the sheer strength of the singing - not just the loudness, which is there sure enough, but the vigour, commitment and clarity.

The South Yorkshire carol tradition, although it has, thankfully, largely evaded the taint of false "folksiness", does have its aficionados - my friend John, a retired lecturer, travels back to his home village from Southampton to sing each year.

Perhaps the most committed caroller, though, is Ian Russell, a Rotherham primary head whose determination to give the tradition even firmer roots led him, in 1994, to organise a "Festival of Village Carols", with hundreds of singers, and an orchestra playing from his transcriptions of the original "church band" accompaniments. He is repeating the event this year.

Ian Russell's interest goes back to his time at the City of Sheffield Training College in the Sixties, where he made a study of local cultural traditions. He followed this with a part-time PhD at Leeds University, in the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies - "sadly axed a few years ago".

Since then, Ian has been recording and writing down carols in homes and pubs. "I found that the whole tradition had been written out of official history, " he says now. "The Victorian reformers and the Oxford Movement published tracts against this sort of music. In Ecclesfield, the church orchestra was sacked in 1827 and the choir in 1840, but the carols carried on in the oral family tradition."

This year, I travelled north to the Festival of Village Carols, and sat next to John in Grenoside Community Hall to sing, under Ian's leadership, the carols which he had painstakingly collected and written down for us: "Awake and Arise", "Tinwood", "Back Lane", "Spout Cottage", "Hail Chime On", "Diadem", "Old Foster" and many others.

Ian had gathered together a large orchestra which included some old instruments (a couple of serpents added more than the usual bite to the bass line) and there were about 300 of us singers. The sound was astonishing. We would not, I hasten to say, have been mistaken for the choir of King's College Chapel, but for sheer vigour and enthusiasm we could not have been bettered - it was that quality, mistaken for vulgarity, that led to the carols being dropped from churches in the first place. Only once did I stop for breath. It was when we sang "Hark! Hark!" and I paused to listen and to remember my grandmother's doorstep, and to consider how my father would have enjoyed singing with me in the community centre.

The tradition would be strong even without the work of Ian Russell - he would be the last person to claim otherwise. There is no doubt, though, that his careful research, and the work he does making and marketing recordings, transcribing music and running the festival, adds considerably to the likelihood of its long-term survival.

Once upon a time, of course, this sort of community activity was what primary headteachers organised - they conducted the choirs, played the organ, ran the sports and theatre groups. Today's pressures have made such activities increasingly difficult, and I find great reassurance in Ian's continued commitment to his cultural interest. A headteacher with a life outside school, I suggested to him, is likely to remain sane and fit to carry on. He agreed, but pointed out that it wasn't "dusty academic research".

"It's being able to meet the people and learn all these lovely carols that belong to the community. In any case, I was told at college that people who play hard also work hard. And to be able to go and have a good sing makes you feel younger."

Another hard worker who finds relaxation with the old carols is the shadow education secretary, David Blunkett, who sings in The Black Bull when he can. "The tradition combines both the best of our history with community spirit and a sense of belonging," he told me. "For an unashamed traditionalist - not to sayold codger - like myself, the contrast between the wonderful old carols sung together in the lounge of The Black Bull with the disco blaring upstairs could not be more stark."

Numerous recordings made in local pubs, and books of music and words, are marketed by Village Carols, Bridge House, Unstone, Sheffield S18 5AF

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you