In many of the pubs around the edge of Sheffield there are the most amazing singing sessions at Christmas time. The repertoire is essentially what was being sung in country churches up till the middle of the nineteenth century – sometimes referred to these days as West Gallery music. When the Victorian Church slung out the old village bands and choirs, and with them their often locally-composed hymns, carols and anthems, and imposed the uniformity of Hymns Ancient and Modern, played by a well-trained organist, the old singers and musicians took their songs, their music and their business into the pubs, and carried on singing the old favourites there.
Nearly two hundred years later this repertoire and style is still very much alive, usually supported by a piano bashing out the accompaniment and providing the charming ‘symphonies’ that keep the rhythm going and give the singers breathing space between the verses. In fact the Sheffield Carols, now usually referred to under the broader banner of the Village Carols, are more popular than ever. You need to get to the singing pubs well before opening time if you’re to stand a chance of getting in.
And what a glorious wall of sound greets you once you’re inside! This isn’t a well-trained choir singing delicately and precisely through their pieces – this is the sound of a community singing it’s heart out, neighbour with neighbour, friend with friend. And with a pint in your hand and a few more inside you, there’s no need to hold back! The wonderful fugueing harmonies and interweaving lines, in up to four parts, are all learned by ear by people who’ve known them ever since they had to stand outside the pub door as children, and listen to the grown-ups belting them out, until they themselves were old enough to step inside and add their voices to the family chorus.
And what, you may ask, has any of this to do with Bishops Castle? Well, a session along these lines was started in the town for Christmas 2018. The venue was be the top room of The Three Tuns Inn at the top of the town in Salop Street. As there was no firm local tradition for this kind of thing, we had to start from scratch.
Local folk singer John Kirkpatrick selected hymns, carols and anthems from the vast Village Carol repertoire, as well as including a good number of similar tunes with a Shropshire connection. John prepared recordings of the carols, with the piano accompaniment, and highlighted each harmony line in turn so that all the parts could be heard and participants could work out how they fitted together, and decide which one suited them best. Words of the carols were provided but there was no written music. Like those kids outside the pub door, singers picked it all up by ear, in this case by listening – repeatedly! – to the tracks, which were available on this website.
It was open to anybody of any age and of any experience who simply enjoys singing. The aim wasn’t to form a choir, or to be in any sense a performing group. We weren’t singing for people to listen to us, we were singing so they had no choice but to want to join in! The aim was to have a good old sing, as best we can, with people who live near to where we live, exploring together a style and repertoire that is probably unfamiliar to most of us. We sang as high or low as we liked – male and female voices were mixed in any of the parts so that the sound was completely different from that generated by the usual strict division of labour in a conventional choir.
Most of the material originates in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when belief in God was unquestioned. The Christmas story fills these carols with wonderfully archaic language, occasionally incomprehensible, but sometimes with stunningly beautiful turns of phrase. And the twists and turns of the determinedly antique music were guaranteed to sweep up even the most committed non-believer along the Road to Glory!!