Celebrating heritage of carols at local festive workshops

What would Sheffield Park blacksmith John Hall have made of 'Hark Hark, what news' being featured 230 years after its creation in a '˜carol workshop' hosted by Sheffield University's Learning and Teaching Services?

Friday, 21st December 2018, 11:08 am
Updated Friday, 21st December 2018, 11:13 am
Pianist Stephen Vickers talking about carol history at St Andrews Church in Broomhall

We'll never know, but after trying to survive on a carol-penning allowance of two shillings a week, the writer of one of South Yorkshire's most popular local carols '˜died in the poorhouse,' noted workshop leader Nigel Russell-Sewell.

Nigel and Worrall Male Voice Choir pianist Stephen Vickers were leading the second of this year's carol workshops at St Andrew's United Reformed Church in Broomhall, with fifty people dropping in last Friday to sample songs from the famous - in traditional carol circles - '˜Worrall Blue Book.'

Local Carols workshop at St Andrews Church, Broomhall

'The idea is to let people have a bit of fun and learn some carols they may not have sung before,' said conductor Nigel.

'They're really surprised to be singing '˜Hark the Herald Angels Sing' to the tune of '˜Malin Bridge', which until they walked in here, they thought was a tram stop.'

Cathedral chorister Nigel set up the workshops in 2012 after his University of Sheffield colleagues said they'd like to have a go at the traditional local carols, sung for generations in south Yorkshire and north Derbyshire chapels and pubs. Several hundred years ago, said Stephen Vickers, the carols would also have been belted out in people's homes, as choristers trekked round isolated farms and cottages through the bleak midwinter.

'They'd also go to the poorhouse and the hospital, and you'd go and visit the lord of the manor, where you'd scrape your boots off, be given a drink and made to perform. That's after carrying your musical instruments through the snow,' he added.

Local carols sing out at the carol workshop in Broomhall

The popular traditional sings in north Sheffield pubs start just after Remembrance Sunday and carry on until Christmas week. Pubs like the Blue Ball in Worrall and the Royal in Dungworth have become famous for their boisterous carolling, and over recent years have attracted the attention of folk and world music fans from across the globe.

'These carols are part of our heritage,' said Stephen.

'Everyone enjoys them, and I think they're spreading to even more pubs now

'The popularity of the workshops have shown there are a lot of people who want to sing,' said Nigel.

Local Carols workshop at St Andrews Church, Broomhall

'But so often I hear people say: '˜I want to join a choir, but I was told at school I couldn't sing, so I haven't for fifty years.' To me that's really sad.'

The community choir at St Andrews caters for born again singers from all over the city, said Stephen. Nigel added that new members with a range of five notes soon expand their repertoire so they can hold their part like anyone else.  

On Friday, Nigel guided the trainee traditional choristers through the more obscure lyrics and tunes.

'Last year we had seven variations of '˜While Shepherds Watched', but there's only two this year,' he lamented.

Conductor Nigel Russell-Sewell

The singers learned how carols and tunes sung today were often originally penned by poverty-stricken poets of the eighteenth century, how '˜Away in a Manger' may actually have American rather than German origins, and how the tune of Ding Dong Merrily on High was first recorded during the reign of Elizabeth I.

And pianist Stephen explained the minute-long '˜symphonies' played by enthusiastic pub keyboardists.

'They're a chance for everyone to take a breath and have a drink and then gird their loins for the next verse,' he explained.

The traditional songs are not stuck in the past, said Nigel.

'They're living things, always evolving and changing. I guess all the variations in harmonies you hear around different villages have grown up through people singing, and then saying, '˜Oh, that works,' and then it continues on as others pick it up.'

Stephen noted the travels of '˜traditional' songs during the industrial revolution. 'In the distant past, it's said that miners moving round the country helped spread the carols.'

Local Carols workshop at St Andrews Church, Broomhall

He whispered: 'Some famous '˜Yorkshire' carols don't come from Yorkshire. The Star of Bethlehem is actually Cornish.'

Visit www.localcarols.org.uk

Local carols workshop at St Andrews Church, Broomhall