Village Carols from the Royal Hotel, Dungworth
Village Carols VC009 CD and MC
First, let me declare an interest in the latest from Ian Russell's charting of the carol traditions of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire. The sessions at the Royal generally find me wedged against the bar, trying to remember the words and which part I'm singing and struggling to hold on to my pint amid the burgeoning throng. This review therefore is not so much a critical appraisal as a personal recommendation.
There is plenty to recommend. Apart from the live recording of the 1994 Festival of Village Carols, VCF101, this is the first in the series to be issued on CD and the results are marvellous! Clear and vivid, with the vocal parts coming in crescendos like breakers in a spring tide; the only problem I could detect being a slight under-recording of organ and soloists. I was surprised to find that the entire disc represents just one take, for the VC recording engineer, complete with digital recorder, is a regular fixture at the Royal. That such sparkling results are sustained throughout is testimony to the commitment, enthusiasm and downright good singing of the other regulars. Playing time is extremely generous, just fifty seconds short of the maximum eighty minutes. As with the others in the series, there is a booklet giving the words of the songs and a detailed history of carolling in the area.
These are not the rehearsed performances of a trained ensemble. Like the vernacular choirs of Continental Europe (the Baltic states and the Basque country being examples) the aim is not one of martial precision. Rather it is the joy and exhilaration of twining one's voice with the rest of the 'goodly company'. Compare for example the usual dreary performances of that Yuletide chestnut, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, with the rousing Dungworth delivery of its distant relative, Awake, Arise, Good Christians. That particular air, like many of the soaring gems on this disc, is far more handsome and invigorating than most of the entries in the standard carol repertoire. I wonder what perverse logic persuaded the compilers of nineteenth century hymnals to leave them out. Perhaps, in the rise of respectable society, joyous religion came to be seen as dysfunctional in terms of controlling the masses.
The impression seems to have been noised abroad that these carols, once rejected from the national church repertoire, are preserved in virtual stasis in their present pub habitat. This is not strictly true. The function of the songs has changed from religious ritual to seasonal observance, and there have been concomitant changes in singing locations and instrumental accompaniments. The repertoire also is subject to modification. True, most items predate the fall from grace with hymnbook compilers, but they have been augmented with some standard carols and a fair smattering of secular songs. This disc has two items which are either peculiar to Dungworth or fairly new to the tradition, I'm not sure which. They are an Ira D Sankey hymn, Reapers, and a topographical song, Swaledale. The others are more widespread, with the perennial While Shepherds turning up in no less than three settings - Liverpool, Pentonville and Old Foster. This carol's metre and easy adaptability to a wide variety of tunes make it much the most common item in the repertoire. In the Blue Ball, Worrall, in the early seventies, I was told they had no less than eleven airs for that one epistle. By the following year they'd added a twelfth, for Amazing Grace had become a big hit with Scots pipe bands - and with Worrall carollers. Ongoing processes of change and adaptation, driven by common concern, are characteristics of a living popular culture, not of a fossilised remnant.
Solos are an important part of the proceedings, presaged by the customary call for order, "Singer's on his feet" - a strange injunction, considering that ninety per cent of the singers are already on theirs. Three are presented, the aformentioned Swaledale and Christmas Tree from retired farmer Billy Mills, and the macabre nineteenth century, Mistletoe Bough, from Will Noble of the Holme Valley Tradition.
All hail the power of Ian Russell! Almost entirely by his efforts South Yorkshire carolling has become the most closely documented song tradition in all these isles, and a lot of their history has entered the pool of common knowledge. Yet virtually everything I've been able to pick up is scattered through ten Village Carols booklets and a few articles. Perhaps one day he may find the time to publish a book.
Meanwhile, wedged against the bar and singing my heart out, what defence can I offer against charges of bias? The answer is absolutely none, I stand guilty on all counts. All I can say is, buy a copy and judge for yourself. Better still, make the haj over to Dungworth - but don't be surprised if you can't get in. It will be crammed to the gunwales with festive revellers straining the roof to its very moorings, and soundly endorsing everything this reviewer has said.
Fred McCormick - 20.12.99
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