Oh Carol!

Traditional carols have been given new life by singers and musicians in Sheffield says David E. Norris.

At this time thoughts in South Yorkshire turn to carol singing. But these are local carols such as Little Bilberry, Lyngham, Old Foster and Sprout Cottage that have been sung around Sheffield for over 250 years. Carol venues stretch from Rotherham to Castleton in Derbyshire. Try getting into The Black Bull in Ecdesfield on a Thursday as singers spill over from the main lounge. Try squeezing into The Travellers Rest on a Saturday night in Oughtibridge and you will hear – but maybe not see -the piano accompanist.

On Sundays the same will greet you at The Royal in Dungworth or The Blue Ball in Worrall. Joining in with these carols is an enjoyable if crowded experience.

The Grenoside festival

Carol singing in Sheffield had a boost from the world of academia – 40 years ago Ian Russell began researching the singing traditions of west Sheffield. He retrieved manuscripts, made recordings, noted and adapted musical scores and helped revive the Sheffield carols.

Get a coveted ticket for the bi-annual festival of carols in Grenoside Community centre, and you will witness the fruits of this work crammed into a single event.
The morning and afternoon sees a choral workshop. When I went in 2008 I witnessed something like a sophisticated cult movement working with the zeal of a born again Salvation Army citadel.

Tenors, sopranos, scattered baritones all clutched the 180-page Village Carols cannon. The Sheffield Book of Village Carols; which encapsulates the carols of villagers around Penistone, Stocksbridge, High Green, Thorpe Hesley and Stannington. There were 30 violinists augmented by four concertina players, two on banjo, two on trumpet, a bassoonist, a base clarinet and Tony Roger on a mongrel horn (pictured right).

Standing on the podium was the man himself, Ian Russell, for a punishing rehearsal.

“Let’s get on to Hark Christmas Hark, and let’s go over the fuguing.”
Familiar words

It quickly became apparent that although many of the carols had local names, the words were very familiar. Liverpool is really While Shepherds Watch…; Little Bilberry is Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

The difference is that many have a call and answer pattern at the end of the verse where the base line answers the melody. This is the fuguing. In addition there is often an instrumental between verses.

Singers had come from Bradford, Liverpool and Nottingham showing just how the festival has grown since it started in 1994. The workshop ended at 5.30 and we dispersed, ready to return at 7.30 for the concert.

Concert hall

An audience of 400 was shoehorned into the hall – the stage laid out like a pub lounge. The musicians were spruced up and the conductor had put on a clean white shirt.

Now I was in on the secret. I knew that there would be orchestral interludes with each carol. I knew the words to Awake and Arise, and Egypt because we had rehearsed them – and I was ready for the fuguing.

There was no concealing the sheer satisfaction on Ian Russell’s face as he stood with a pint in his hand, singing at the top of his voice. The festival owes much to his inspiration and the revival of these Carols represents a lifetime achievement.

• For more information go to www.villagecarols.org.uk