CHRISTIAN AND PAGAN : ORIGINS OF FOLK-SONG AND DANCE.

Recently we looked at Christmas carols and wassailing songs and their early development from Medieval times. I drew attention to a wassailing song featured on the Waterson’s album “Frost and Fire”(first released 1965) which has a variety of songs associated with different seasons and rituals of the rural year. This album has very interesting notes written by an authority on folk song A.L. Lloyd. Lloyd explores the origins of folk song and dance.

What are the songs really about? Let’s begin with Adam and Eve. The first men plucked their food from bushes and trees, and in open country they became hunters. They learned to tame animals, to grow food plants, and turned herdsmen and agriculturalists. When plants and beasts abounded life was good. If they withdrew people starved. Fertility was vital. Its stream dwindled in winter, ran again in springtime. Gradually, people got the idea of trying to stimulate that fertility by performing stamping dances to waken the earth, leaping dances to provoke crops to grow high and bulls to breed. They tried to bind the potency of nature to themselves, dressing in green leaves or animal skins to perform their magic ceremonies, ritually eating and drinking enormously at certain seasons to take into themselves extra portions of the vital spirit dwelling in sacred animals and plants. Man was on the point of inventing the gods.

Lloyd writes as a Communist. His interest is in the life of the folk, the origins of their creativity and how the songs express the necessity to survive through their work and find communal ways of seeking to induce productivity in what they do. He rejects explanations of mystical belief:

So much is talked of myth and sun worship and such, that its necessary to recall that behind most of these calendar customs and the songs attached to them lies nothing more mysterious, nothing less realistic than the yearly round of work carried out in the fields. We’ve divided our cycle of customs according to the economic seasons-winter, spring, summer and autumn . Less formally we might better have divided them, according to economic seasons-the ploughing, sowing, augmentation and harvesting of crops. For its due to their relation with economic life, not to any mystical connection, that the song-customs have persisted right up to our own time.

This was written a generation or two ago and for many readers these customs of rural life will be alien to them. Christmas survives in a commercial urbanised setting, and Easter, for those who have lost an understanding of its religious significance has become simply a matter of supermarket bought Easter eggs and perhaps rolling eggs down a convenient slope; likewise Hallowe’en, which has lost connection with the dead temporarily returning. In rural areas. the celebration of the May queen might persist and there may be celebrations around mid-summer eve.

Yet perhaps, behind the economic necessities that Lloyd wants to stress, he underestimates the mysterious otherness of the world about the folk as something mysteriously created. Lloyd, himself , seeks to make sense of the religious aspect as “man on the point of inventing gods”:

The most gifted man in the community took the lead. He was the medicine man, the priest, the king, the representative of divine power. He was the one who dressed in skins or leaves, who killed the sacred animal, cut the sacred tree, led the earth shaking dances of springtime, lit the reassuring bonfires of midwinter, headed the band of heroes who marched through the village at critical seasons, singing and dancing for good luck and fine crops, and extracting their rewards for driving off the demons of sterility and want. And because the medicine-man was the representative of all that’s fecund, in early times he was killed even before his potency faded so that another vigorous representative could take his place and the continuance of fertility assured. Eventually, as manners softened, the ceremony involving this ritual slaughter, a rite compounded of anxiety, hope and remorse, changed its character. Instead of the king, a slave, a prisoner of war, an animal even was sacrificed, and finally the ceremony became a symbolic spectacle, a pantomime dance of death and resurrection that comprised the first folk play and thus the beginning of all theatre.

Lloyd explains- and of course he is thinking primarily of England and northern Europe- the effect of the arrival of Christianity thus:

When the Christian church arose, it ranged itself against the beliefs and customs of the old nature worship and prudently annexed many of the seasonal ceremonies. Thus the critical time of the winter solstice, became the season of the Nativity of the new god. The season of the great ceremonies became the time of his slaughter and resurrection. So it happens that in many of the songs of this record, pagan and Christian elements are inextricably tangled.

This is all very well. Lloyd offers indeed a brilliant summary of the processes by which man invented god. and the way in which the Christian revelation might have worked into popular acceptance by its great stories being adapted for the ceremonies of the folk. What again, I think, is lacking in Lloyd -and what is missing from Marxist understanding as I myself understand it- is a recognition of revelation. For the “new god” of Christianity is not limited to an economic rationale; he presents a revelation beyond that rationale.

Lloyd describes well the direction of mind that led to man creating gods. Man seeks fertility, potency, good fortune, magic and seeks the power from beyond that enables these. But the Christian revelation that so caught the medieval peasant mind, making so popular celebratory carols of the Nativity like “the Holly Bears a Berry”, is not to do with drawing power and vitality, it is to with awakening of wonder. The wonder comes from recognising the new truth that God has brought. For the dawning of the new truth is the revelation, not of a God who is urged into being to bring dynamic power promising potency and fertility but a God who acts on us to awaken the consciousness to a new awareness through the gift of His child.

To Lloyd “it’s not necessary to be anything other than an ordinary freethinking twentieth century urban western man with a proper regard for humankind, to appreciate the spirit and power of these songs. He is right, I think, to point us to the origins of our western culture, going back to its folk roots. The great beauty and wonder of early folk song of medieval carols, of medieval poetry is that they enable us to remenber something of our past that we are in danger of forgetting in what seems an increasingly neurotic world : a culture in which the qualities of natural vitality and the power of revelation are united in expression. In the face of the modern world it seems increasingly our past upon which we must draw for strength of insight.

A NEW YEAR WASSAILING SONG.

Here is a wassailing song celebrating the New Year. As mentioned in a previous post “Christmas Carols” wassailing was a way of roisterous singing by groups touring the neighbourhood- including the big House- seeking to exchange their music for gifts of mead or beer. The word “wassailing” goes back to Old and Middle English using the greeting “Waes hael” (“Be hale or in good health”). The practice is associated with fertility rites rooted deep in the past and as such this continued into the early twentieth century in rural areas in which, for instance, on Twelfth Night, in cider -making areas of England, there would be tree-wassailing with a group singing while cider -coated cakes would be placed under apple trees and cider would be poured around the trunks to encourage good growth the following season.

Here we come a-wassailing 
Among the leaves so green; 
Here we come a-wand'ring 
So fair to be soon. 
Love and joy come to you,
And to your wassail too; 
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year.

Our wassail cup is made, 
Of the rosemary tree, 
And so is your beer 
Of the best barley.
Love and joy come to you 
And to your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year.

We are not daily beggars 
That beg from door to door; 
But we are neighbour's children, 
Whom you have seen before. 
Love and joy come to you, 
And to your wassail too; 
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year.

Call up the butler of this house, 
Put on his golden ring 
Let him bring us up a glass of beer, 
And better we shall sing. 
Love and joy come to you, 
And to your wassail too; 
And God bless you and send you a happy New Year.

We have got a little purse 
Of stretching leather skin; 
We  want a little of your money 
To line it well within. 
Love and joy come to you, 
And to your wassail too; 
And God bless you and send you a happy New Year.

Bring us out a table 
And spread it with a cloth; 
Bring us out some mouldy cheese 
And some of your Christmas loaf. 
Love and joy come to you, 
And to your wassail too; 
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year.

God bless the master of this house 
Likewise the mistress too 
And all the little children 
That round the table go. 
Love and joy come to you, 
And to your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a happy New Year.

Good master and good mistress, 
While you're sitting by the fire, 
Pray think of us poor children 
Who  are wandering in the mire, 
Love and joy come to you, 
And to your wassail too; 
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year.   

It is a song which is jolly and full of good humour and just right for a season when the winter cold requires a counteractive resiliance and high spirits in country folk.

May we, with the wassailers, keep our hearts singing with good cheer!

Again You Tube has numerous recordings of this carol. My own favourite is from a folk group, The Watersons in an album “Frost and Fire ” which records songs which would have been sung by country folk at the various seasons and festivals of the year.

THE HOLLY AND THE IVY

One of my favourite carols is “The Holly and the Ivy” an old carol which developed in the Christian Middle ages from medieval roots.

The holly and the ivy
When they are both full grown 
Of all the trees that are in the wood 
The holly bears the crown.

[Chorus]
O the rising of the sun 
And the running of the deer 
The playing of the merry organ 
Sweet singing in the choir. 

The holly bears a blossom 
As white and lily flow'r 
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ 
To be our dear Saviour.
(Chorus)

The holly bears a blossom 
As red as any blood 
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ 
To be our dear Saviour.
(Chorus)

The holly bears a prickle 
As sharp as any thorn 
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ 
On Christmas Day in the morn.
(Chorus)

The holly bears a bark 
As bitter as any gall 
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ 
For to redeem us all
(chorus)

The holly and the ivy 
When they are both full grown 
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.


O, the rising of the sun 
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ 
Sweet singing in the choir.

     

The origin of this carol is very early but its appearance in print is relatively recent. It was “discovered” by the famous English folk song collector Cecil Sharpe in 1913 as sung to its present tune. The song had been passed on orally over the generations from the medieval period. The signs of its origins from pagan times are still clear. The choral lines appear to show a mixture of pagan and church influence: so you get the pleasing combination of the natural and outdoor with indoor church worship: the celebration of the rising of the sun in a world which lived, not by clock time but by the summons of dawn and the deer running in deer parks would have been welcome not just aesthetically but for sport.

In fact there is still extant a cluster of medieval holly and ivy songs which are associated with deeply embedded folk customs, ritual, song and dance. Holly represented the male and ivy the female. In both England and France there was a custom at Shrove-tide ( ie. the period before Lent) to burn effigies of the Holly -Boy carried by girls and the Ivy-Girl by boys. This custom according to R.L.Greene (“Early English Carols” 1935) had its origin in early fertility rites. A development from such were the flyting songs (ie. songs exchanging insults common in the meieval period) between male and female where the two sexes would contend for the “maistrie” with one sex praising its own tree and mocking the other. In one song “Holver and Heivy” after the contention there is reconciliation “essential if life is to go on”. (John Speirs Medieval English Poetry. Faber 1971)

Christianity found that to become accepted, it needed to evolve its practice to accommodate the rituals of country life in the variety of peasant cultures through Europe. The pleasing result was evolution rather than revolution. This is shown by the adaptation of the Christmas story to mid-winter pagan solstice festivals. These developments are illustrated by the development of “The Holly and the Ivy” from the pagan roots as shown taking on Christian imagery. Thus as Christ is King so the Holly is the crown of all trees. The crown’s thorns represents the crown worn by Jesus “King of the Jews” crucified with a crown of thorns. Each colour associated with the tree is then linked with an aspect of the Christian story.

What comes through so many of these medieval carols is the sense of wonder received into peasant consciousness as they sing of the Christmas story and the reception of the “sweet Jesus Christ”. “Sweet” is a very ancient straight from Middle English. But there is no soft sentimentality as there might be today. “How sweet!” we say very easily. But sweetness in the harsh, often physically brutal and difficult world of the Middle Ages-in the carol “sweet” is contrasted with, for instance, “bitter as any gall”- sweetness was something to be treasured in oppostion to the harshly and brutally typical normality. A vision of sweetness opened up a new world. I mean by this not, first and foremost, a new ideological world but a radical development in the consciousness of peoples. Add this sweetness to the wonder along with the background energy and vitality of rising sun and running deer and you get a sense of what makes this carol so precious that it has lasted all these centuries.

Perhaps to live according to a vision of sweetness in a harsh world is an achievement we in our times need to maintain.

CHRISTMAS CAROLS

What would Christmas be without Christmas carols? There is an astonishing range of these. The exquisite, purely religious ones you will hear, for example, on formal occasions, which so many churches celebrate, like Nine Lessons and Carols. There are the favourites you sing lustily out carol singing as you go round doors in cheery groups Then, there are the more festive ones, you might hear sung in pub gatherings. Perhaps, less welcome, is the constant accompaniment of Christmas music in supermarkets and at other commercially driven networks. (I am tempted to put my hands over my ears every time I hear Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”!)

The range of settings is fitting. Going back to medieval times carols bring together pagan and folk roots with spreading Christian influences. The original meaning of carol is a circular dance. This would be associated in darkest winter with dancing to celebrate the winter solstice, the shortest day on December 21. The time of the Christmas celebration of the Nativity was deliberately chosen to develop from these pagan roots. St. Francis, in 1223, is said to have introduced songs into Nativity plays to accompany Christian mass. In England mystery plays, like the Coventry -plays that cover the Christian year- would include singing of carols appropriate to the theme.

Wassailing was an early form of carousing carol group singing. A wassail is a drink like mulled wine or mead and wassailing involved going round the area at Christmas and New Year singing songs in exchange for food and drink.

Some of my favourite carols come from this medieval period blending folk assimilation of the Christian story and grafting it on to extant folk songs. Every Christmas for many years, our family has listened to Coope, Boyes and Simpson, a group of traditional folk singers who bring to life many of these ancient carols, in a lively traditional folk style. One of the oldest is “”The Boar’s Head Carol” which initially celebrates Christmas eating at Queen’s Hall in Oxford:

    The Boar's Head Carol

  The boar's head in hand bring I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary 
I pray you, my masters be merry 
   Quot estis in convivio 
[As you all feast so heartily)

     Caput apri defero
    Reddens laudes Domino.
[Lo behold the hall I bring
Giving praise to God we sing.]

  The boar's head, as I understand
  Is the rarest dish in all this land, 
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland 
    Let us servire cantico.
   [Let us serve with a song]


      Caput apri defero 
    Reddens laudes Domino.

Our steward hath provided this 
In honour of the King of Bliss; 
Which, on this day to be served is 
  In Reginesi atrio.
   (In the Queen's hall.)

      Caput apro defero
    Reddens laudes Domino.





Apart from the Coope, Boyes and Simpson version on CD- “A Garland of Carols” a marvellous rendition of the carol can be found on an album by the great Irish folk band The Chieftains on their album “The Bells of Dublin”. To hear this carol visit You Tube (The Boar’s Head Carol on youtube.com/watch?v=5NiActzCDO subscribed by Sheils Leary)- a version which is superbly illustrated by images of medieval roistering.

(With thanks to Orangemarmalade Books for use of their cover to Aliki’s “Medieval Feast”. The head picture is Sandy’s “Ushering in the Boar’s Head”1852)

NB The next instalment -Part 3 -of the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is deferred until January.)