Wassail, wassail

I must have been nine, maybe ten, when four guys and an accordion destroyed Christmas carols for me forever.

It was my mother’s fault, naturally. She took me and my little brother to a concert of English folk carols in some old Catskills barn one snowy evening. Inside was another world.

These were not like any Christmas carols I’d ever heard. In lieu of Santa and his elf-assisted surveillance state, here were men with guns and cannons, carrying a tiny dead wren in solemn funeral procession. Here were unhinged wassailers bent on forcible wealth redistribution, barging into the houses of the rich demanding eggs and ale. Here was Jesus the fetus, showing off his cosmic powers in utero to one-up a peevish Joseph.


Some of the carols were just weirdly beautiful, like “Milford,” a four-voiced fugue of polyphonic harmony whose text runs in its entirety:

If angels sung a Savior’s birth
On that auspicious morn
We well may imitate their mirth.
Now he again is born.

Best of all was “Green Grow The Rushes-O,” an inscrutable but satisfyingly rowdy counting song a little like “Twelve Days of Christmas,” but with more apocrypha. “Ten commandments” and “four for the gospel-makers” were clear enough, but some of the lines positively defied interpretation. Who were the nine bright shiners, the April rainers? Six for the six proud walkers, five for the symbols at your door. 

This was heady stuff, to a fantasy-minded kid with a head already full of Tolkein, and a bracing antidote to the usual parade of animatronic shop-window Santas and “Jingle Bell Rock.” We bought a tape, and brought it home, and played it absolutely to death. Christmas after Christmas, my little brother and I jittered around the living room in our pajamas to “Lord of the Dance” and shouted along with John the Red Nose on “The Cutty Wren.”

All men are mortal, and cassette tapes doubly so. After a few years of hard use, the precious tape began to develop worrying crinkles and flubs. We coddled it. We stopped rewinding it. When it got snarled in the machinery of our clunky little Fisher-Price tape player, we fished it out and carefully wound the reels back and forth by hand, smoothing the frail magnetic tape ‘til it lay flat again. Eventually it met its maker, and that was that.

After the tape died, the carols I loved joined the bittersweet ranks of all the beloved lost treasures of childhood. None of us could remember the name of the group, or knew how to find their music. It wasn’t until college that I found them again.

By that time, I had fallen into the nerd-frat world of collegiate a capella, and joined up with a crew of she-louts called, infelicitously, the Smiffenpoofs. We were forever singing and drinking, drinking and singing: deconstructing pop percussion lines, picking out the harmonies on “Love In An Elevator.” One day at rehearsal, I overheard a fellow Poof — a tall, trenchcoat-clad low alto with a thing for madrigals — singing a ratchety old carol. I’ll sing you one-o; green grow the rushes-o. I grabbed her by the sleeve and stared like the Ancient Mariner. “What. Are. You. Singing,” I demanded to know.

The name of the group was Nowell Sing We Clear, and they’d been hiding in plain sight all along. A foursome started by John Roberts and Tony Barrand while they were grad students at Cornell in the 60s, they were legends on the folk-trad scene. And, as it turns out, they were scheduled to play an upcoming gig at the Roxbury Arts Group.

I took the bus home for the show. It was a cider-in-paper-cups sort of affair, and the median age of the audience was probably around sixty. It might as well have been the Beatles at the Washington Coliseum. I met them at intermission, and was too starstruck to talk in proper sentences.

Three decades after I first heard “Rise Up Jock,” I’ve finally fallen in with the right crowd. Upstate New York is home to a thriving subculture of pub singing. There’s also a sizable overlap between the pub-song crowd and the ranks of Sacred Harp shape note singers, another circle I’m running in these days. I was thrilled to discover that “Milford” — along with another beloved Nowell Sing We Clear standard, “Sherburne” — is in fact a tune from the Sacred Harp.

Every year around this time, a motley crew of local folkies and English pub singers and shape note people take over a pub somewhere in the Hudson Valley, and subject it to a couple of hours of anarchic and decidedly amateur wassailing. It’s not exactly Radio City Music Hall. We amuse ourselves. Occasionally there’s a table full of unfortunate noobs that calls for a round of “Walking In A Winter Wonderland,” or something equally saccharine, but that can’t be helped.

Nowell Sing We Clear had their last concert tour in 2014, after a respectable forty-year career of caroling up and down the Eastern seaboard, but they are still making occasional guest appearances. And, according to recent posts on their Facebook page, they are working on a songbook of their arrangements.

It’s the best news I’ve heard all year.

Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at lissa.e.harris@gmail.com.

There is one comment

  1. Karen Harris

    O.M.G. This one just slayed me Lissa. The memory of you and your brother (and me too, I gleefully admit it) careening around the house singing The Cutty Wren at the top of our lungs, is absolutely one of the greatest joys of our life as a more-than-slightly-off-the-rails-what-the-F-is-going-to-happen-next family. That Noel Sing We Clear tape and the monthly family Day Off Day at Magic Meadow made being a single mom less of a disaster and more of a magic carpet ride. Thank you for reminding me. Pure magic. May all families get to dance together to music like that.

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