Christmas Music (1)–Best Traditional Carols

(Note—this is an updated version of a group of posts I last updated about four years ago—so those of you who remember the earlier posts may find some of this familiar.)

Now that Thanksgiving is over, and the Christmas shopping season has kicked in, we need to note that Christmas is coming. Christmas is a very big deal in the Wufnik household. For most people who celebrate Christmas it means the usual things–family, a time to reflect, presents, feeling really full, that sort of thing. But for some of us, it has a deeper, more personal meaning. Specifically, it means “OK, now I get to go out and buy more Christmas music.” I’ve been doing this for an embarrassingly long time, several decades. You know, you buy two or three or four or more of these every year for forty some-odd years and they start piling up. But I can’t help it. I’ve already bought a bunch this year, and I may not be done yet.

So here is an updated list, in no particular order and to be received in the spirit in which it is offered, of some of my favorite stuff, organized by highly arbitrary categories, because it’s a highly arbitrary list. There are 24 of them, and we’ll do it like an advent calendar–one installment a day–although we’re starting a couple of days early. But I figure people might want to track some of these down, hence the early start. Feel free to skip over any stray political commentary that may wander in by accident.

Our first category is Best Traditional Carols. By this I mean the familiar carols that we all like to sing. There is such an extraordinary diversity of Christmas music that right off the bat we need to distinguish between carols and songs. There are thousands of Christmas songs. Carols, though, are a smaller set—and we all pretty much know what they are. They’re the ones we know (most of) the words to. There are so many of these, and I’ve got a more than a few, and they all have similar names–Carols for Christmas, or something like that. Several good ones come to mind–Carols for Christmas, surprisingly enough, by Andrew Parrot and the Taverner Choir (two of them, in fact) or pretty much anything by anybody English. My favorite, however, is something called Sir Christemas, by the Elizabethan Singers, one of the main English choral groups of the 1970s (and not to be confused with the excellent Sir Christemas by that fine group out of Birmingham, Ex Cathedra.) These were the best British choral singers of the sixties and seventies (with some great English names–how about a tenor named Ian Partridge?), and it’s a great album. Lots of snappy arrangements of traditional carols, and a whole bunch you’re not likely to hear anywhere else–a lovely Christmas song by James Joyce, for example. Who would expect that? I picked it up sometime in the 1970s, and it’s been re-released on CD by Boston Skyline Records—except I see from Amazon that it’s been discontinued. It looks as if you can still pick some up from Amazon, though.

And here we run into a recurring problem—great albums that have been discontinued by their manufacturers. Because if you went to look for the Andrew Parrott albums, you would find that they’ve been discontinued as well. So the best of what’s left, really, would be either A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection, by the Sixteen, or any of the Robert Shaw Chorale Christmas Carol albums. You really can’t go wrong with either. I should say that Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort have released a very nice album of Christmas music called The Promise of Ages, but it’s a much broader sweep than just carols. Not that I have a problem with that—it’s exactly the kind of Christmas album I love, with music spanning the centuries, and much of it duplicates the two CDs that are now out of print. But if what you’re looking for is carols, than Shaw or the Sixteen should fit the bill nicely. The Sixteen carol album also comes as part of a Christmas set of three CDs, the other two being Early English Christmas (which we’ll get to shortly), and Twentieth Century Christmas (which we’ll get to as well). Actually, an outstanding set.

The English do Christmas well, although not as well as Germans. Lots of festivals, tons of concerts of Christmas music, and Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, when the entire country, instead of getting back in the swing of things, just takes another day off. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is open, and everyone sits around and watches lots of movies on television. And the Queen’s Christmas message, of course, which these days generally is about what another lousy year she just had. Historically, Boxing Day was the day when the upper classes delivered boxes of presents to their servants and merchants, hence the name. No one does that any more, but the name stuck, as did the nice tradition of sitting around and doing nothing and eating leftovers from the Christmas turkey. Plus, the English have all these great carols that no one is the US plays, like Once in Royal David’s City–who has heard of that one? And the music to Away in a Manger is different. Lovely.

And speaking of royal, it’s been not a bad year for the House of Windsor. Again. These things are relative, of course–they no longer have good years, it’s all measured in relative badness. But this year was actually not too terrible. In the time we’ve lived in England, the Queen has had to report on the death of her sister Margaret; the death of her Mother (at 101); various gaffes by Philip, who has a general propensity for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time; various scrapes that Princes Will and Harry have gotten into (usually Harry); the marriage of Charles and the non-Diana—Camilla, that’s it; and the various treacheries of Tony Blair, including the Iraq fiasco. Charles keeps hanging around, waiting for the Queen to die gracefully, for lack of any other way to put it; the monarch in England is not allowed to just resign—the job is for life. Actually, I have something of a soft spot for Charles. Anyone who likes organic farming and hates modern architecture is ok by me. And Philip. I think, managed to say nothing inflammatory this year, or at least that I noticed.

Anyway, back to the music. What’s a “carol” anyway? Well, it’s simply a folk song that’s adapted to some sort of religious occasion. And apparently invented by the English, bless their hearts. And there are lots of them. They apparently got their start when Cromwell was running things, and the Puritans banned music in churches, but were not averse to going to dances. Cromwell himself was a big music fan, and had musical entertainments at home. In fact, as a result of the Puritans banning music in public places, including churches, England saw a boom in private music celebrations and performances in homes, or in private clubs. Since the last century, however, carols, especially those we associate with Christmas, come with composers as well. So many of the songs we think of as Christmas carols derive from folk songs, usually in England or Germany, while quite a few have a more recent vintage.

This actually raises a point—some Christmas Carol albums are just that, the Carols we like to sing—while others offer more of an historical overview of Christmas songs through the ages, dating back usually to medieval carols. I like both kinds, but I prefer the latter category, because many of the groups who produce these types of albums often follow an historical theme through parts (or indeed all) of the album.

Other good picks: Paul Hillier (and his Theatre of Voices) has two carol CDs out, both also quite good, but these are more of the historical grouping—actually, the titles (Christmas through the Ages) sort of give the game away. Polyphony, which seems to confine its Christmas offerings these days to an annual performance of The Messiah at St. John’s, Smith Square every year, has a fine disc, A Christmas Present from Polyphony, with a bunch of old favorites mixed in with some 20th century stuff, including Peter Warlock’s haunting Bethlehem Down. (Hint–any album with Bethlehem Down on it is worth buying!) We’ve mentioned the Ex Cathedra Sir Christemas (which has been reissued as Christmas Past and Present), which has a real interesting mix of traditional and unusual as well, including Elliot Carter’s Every Star Shall Sing a Carol. The Robert Shaw Chorale, always trustworthy and steadfast, have several straight carol albums, including Songs of Angels: Christmas Hymns and Carols, and A Festival of Carols.

Finally, there’s what I have to call “the John Rutter problem.” John Rutter is a legendary arranger and conductor, spending most of his career hanging around Clare College, Oxford, and putting out lots and lots of choral music, and lots and lots of choral arrangements, may of which have come to dominate late 20th century choral singing in England and, to a lesser extent, in America. Am I the only one to find Rutter’s arrangements boring? Apparently. I do like listening to “What Sweeter Music” (which, if I remember correctly, even found its way into a Volvo ad a number of years back, for some reason). But most of his arrangements are boring to sing. You can find his stuff everywhere–I even own one CD, The Holly and the Ivy–and I do give it a listen every once in a while–but give me Gregg Smith any day. But if what you want is very simply arranged traditional carols, with some straight-ahead a capella singing, give it a try. If you want somewhat brassier versions, check out The Bach Choir’s Noel!, which if nothing else will wake you up.

This seems like the appropriate time to bring up one of the enduring mysteries associated with one particular carol, Deck Us All With Boughs Of Holly. It may come as a surprise to those not familiar with the work of Walt Kelly that the words that normally come to mind are NOT the original words. Kelly in fact did extensive scholarship on the issue, and there two separate competing candidates for the original words, which may be familiar to some of you. First, there’s the wildly popular Deck Us All with Boston Charlie:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don’t we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don’t love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n’ too-da-loo!
Hunky Dory’s pop is lolly gaggin’ on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!

Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloup, ‘lope with you!
Chollie’s collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

More recent scholarship, however, has revealed that there may be an even older version, which, while it exists only in the form of fragments, seems to go something like this:

Duck us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an’ Polly Voo!
Chilly Filly’s name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly’s jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, Woof, Woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, Goof, Goof!

Tickle salty boss anchovie
Wash a wash a wall Anna Kangaroo
Ducky allus bows to Polly,
Prolly Wally would but har’ly do!

Dock us all a bowsprit, Solly —
Golly, Solly’s cold and so’s ol’ Lou!

We wait for further scholarship to resolve this issue. For further information, check out the Pogo website.

15 replies »

  1. I had the most wonderful Christmas in Vienna about 8 years ago. Never to be forgotten…

    …one of my favourite CDs picked up for Christmas was from these guys!

    Not quite the Christmas spirit this one…but I love it. 🙂

  2. …and if you do not already then TRY and watch the New Year’s Day Concert – Radio 4 and the telly!

    Can’t wait…

  3. This is wonderful stuff, Bob. Hoping you’re going to do some discussion of particular carols as the series goes on….

  4. Not to worry. There are a couple of relevant categories coming up, including Best Christmas album by a European medieval babe group. I do have some harsher comments about the whole Celtic Christmas thing later on, though, so be warned.

  5. lol that should be interesting. One thing about the Celtic Women, it is one of the better commercial made up from nowhere girl bands, the fiddler especially. 🙂

  6. I saw her in a Lord of the Dance dueling fiddlers performanc and she looked like a biker chick, she definitely lost pixie/fairy look. Which spice girl?