Friday, December 23, 2011

For The Season #4*: "The Gloucestershire Wassail Song"

Among the most delightful of Christmas customs for centuries have been caroling and taking a nip of good cheer of one sort or another, and in recent times - oh, the last two hundred years or so - the two have been conflated into our modern definition of "wassail." No matter that the origins of both the carol and the drink predate Christianity and that both were trotted out at different times of the year by northern European ancients. Thanks to the powerful impressions of the winter holidays created by the 19th century stories of Washington Irving in America and Charles Dickens in England, wassailing has come to mean pretty much an exclusively December tradition of door-to-door carol singing, the reward for which would be a cup from a Christmas bowl of mulled wine or cider or ale.

Carols, in fact, started as seasonal dances; the word "carol" itself probably comes from the Celtic "coroli," meaning a kind of circular reel, and there were spring and summer carols as well as winter ones. And "wassail" clearly derives from an Anglo-Saxon or Old English phrase "Waes hael," meaning "good health" - the "hael" being the root of both our words "health" and "hale" as in "hale and hearty." One use of the word - "waes hael drinc" - explains why Googling "wassail" will take you to several hundred recipes for an alcoholic concoction.

The medieval English, appreciating as they did the fine qualities of strong drink, "wassailed" their crops and orchards in the spring by pouring some liquor on to the ground and wishing good health to the spirits that even in the Christian era they believed animated their trees and other growing things. In Wessex, the old kingdom of the West Saxons and the place of origin of many of Britain's most famous Christmas songs (including "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"), the custom was to sprinkle apple trees with hard cider from the previous year's distillation, hoping to insure a bountiful crop of still-ready fruit. It was probably the church that redirected this pagan custom into a single Christmas-themed practice, as also happened with holly and ivy and candlelit evergreens (similar to the transformation of Samhain into All Hallows Eve).

The Gloucestershire wassail song may have its roots in pre-Christian times, which would make it very old indeed, but the oldest published version goes back to the 17th century - which is plenty old enough. There appear to have been two complementary customs as part of the Gloucestershire wassail. The wandering group of celebrants would visit homes bearing food and drink, which they would offer to share with the residents - hence the part of the lyric that goes:

Wassail, Wassail, all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee

In turn, the hosts would re-fill the bowl with their own mulled drink -

Come Butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

All in all, it looks like quite a good way to celebrate Christmas. When I was a child, a handful of my neighbors used to get themselves a bit mulled, to use an old Sinatra phrase, and wander around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and singing carols, including this one. My parents generally offered them only coffee, but that didn't seem to dampen their spirits in the least.

The song lends itself to enthusiastic singing, so we start this week's selections with a "hael" version by the Kingston Trio:

The opening instrumental here is played on a bouzouki by Trio member Dave Guard, who liked the sound of the instrument so much that he learned to play it for this recording.

Modern choral groups tend to show a bit more restraint with the lyric, as here by the "early music" consort Chanticleer (not to be confused with the excellent gay men's choir of the same name):

Really pleasant if a bit stiff, which often happens when folk songs are tackled by artists whose training is elsewhere.

Traveler's Dream is a contemporary Indiana folk group with Denise Wilson and Michael Lewis taking the lead on this rendition:

The rhythm and instrumentation are rather more contemporary Celtic-sounding than Anglo-Saxon (and Celts and Saxons do not, let's say, get along - even at Christmas), but in the amalgam of styles that characterizes the modern American folk scene, this works wonderfully. Folk process, you know.

Canada's Loreena McKennet taps into both traditions effectively. Her a capella version here goes straight back to Gloucestershire:

Another contemporary style is "electric folk," one of whose pioneering members is Ashley Hutchings, also a force in Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. Here Hutchings leads his Albion Band:

American instrumental group Mannheim Steamroller, founded by producer Chip Davis, has utilized all kinds of modern synthesized and electrified instruments in their many Christmas albums, which they use to great effect here:

Finally - I seldom slip into overt sentiment in these articles, and though at first glance it may seem as if I am doing so here - I'm not. Listen to this outstanding performance from a middle school production of A Christmas Carol from Edmonton, Alberta:

That's 11-year-old Anni Yu making those very grown-up sounds on the violin - she has performed with the Edmonton Symphony and elsewhere in Canada. These children perform the song with just the right amount of gusto, and it delights me that they demonstrate such feeling for so old and traditional a number. Maybe there is hope for folk music yet. Christmas is, after all, a season of hope.

And writing this lengthy post has given me a prodigious thirst for some form of wassail or other - so I hope to close with a drink, a health, and best wishes to all for the merriest of Christmases.

*The first three songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes included #1 - "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"; #2 - "All Through The Night/Ar Hyd Y Nos"; and #3 - When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year. Other Christmas-themed articles on CompVid101 include "Children, Go Where I Send Thee", "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy" , "Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".


SK Waller said...

My favorite cover of this song is by Golden Bough, a northern California band. I first heard them perform it in the mid-1980s and it has remained one of my favorite holiday staples.

YouTube Video

SK Waller

Jim Moran said...

Hello again, SK! I'll add the Baez version to LBV and the Golden Bough rendition to this piece here when I get some time later this week. Thanks for the help! When I started this site, YouTube was still new and there were often only limited numbers of quality versions of the songs available. But YT and the music companies have reached an accommodation of sorts, as evidenced by this GB video, which is an official release from YT and therefore is bullet-proof as far as copyright sanctions are concerned.