Thursday, 15 December 2016


Sweet Bells SUNDAY 18th at 6pm St Jude, Hampstead Garden Suburb NW11.
Sweet Bells, Sweet Chiming Christmas Bells, Sweet Bells, Sweet Chiming Christmas Bells, They lead us on our Heavenly Way, Sweet Chiming Bells.

This is one of the alternative choruses to the carol we know today as 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night'.

It comes from the tradition now known as 'West Gallery Music' - you may have seen and heard this in film and TV adaptations of Thomas Hardy and other novels of the era. (There was a cinema version of 'Far From the Madding Crowd' in 2015 starring Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen, et al, in which the folk singer Eliza Carthy - daughter of Norma Waterson & Martin Carthy - replicated music of the genre).

Wikipedia says : "The term derives from the wooden galleries which were constructed at the west end of churches during the 18th century upon which the choir would perform. Victorians disapproved of these Georgian galleries, and most were removed during restorations in the 19th century."

In most of England, when the pious Victorians, with their bright new Pipe Organs, drove out the village choirs, the tradition of these lusty songs with a religious theme all but disappeared. It survived primarily in the area around South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire (and apparently also in Cornwall) where the singers moved into the public houses and carried on. Around Sheffield (where I grew up) they still sing these traditional versions of Christmas Carols in pubs, from Advent Sunday until New Years Day. I encountered this year on year, through the Handsworth Sword Dancers, who on Boxing Day morning perform their unique sword dances, followed by a Mummers Play and carols in the open air, before retreating to the Cross Keys (one of the oldest pubs in Sheffield) to lubricate their voices with a few pints of ale, whilst singing well into the afternoon.

Many of the West Gallery songs were collected and archived by Cecil Sharp but others survive only in aural tradition. In the last two decades West Gallery Music has started to become popular again and there are now a few quires as well as more people packing into the pubs around Sheffield.

The folk singer Kate Rusby has recorded many of these songs as a solo artist, with folk and jazz instruments and sometimes with added brass. Her concerts are extremely popular and are one way of saving this musical tradition and passing it down through the generations.

My son the British Composer David Loxley Blount has done something quite different. He's listened to and recorded these songs in the Sheffield area pubs and for several he's written down the tunes in standard musical notation - following the Cecil Sharp tradition. With a handful of songs he's gone further and returned these songs to church usability, by setting them for SATB choir and church organ. 

If you are around in North London this weekend - on Sunday 18th December at   6pm, you can hear his version of Sweet Bells in the Carol Service at St Jude on the Hill all are welcome, entirely free, including to mince pies and mulled wine afterwards. David and his sister Helen will be singing in the choir. I hope to see friends old and new.

Jan Loxley Blount 16:12:16

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