Frost and Fire - A Calendar of Ritual and Magical songs
The legendary Bill Leader, the founder of Topic Records recorded this seminal album Frost and Fire in 1965. He knew instantly that this was unlike any other recording he’d ever made and so it proved.
All four seasons are represented and the Watersons were the only group who it was felt could bring the subject matter to life.
At midwinter, ploughing time is just around the corner reassuring heroes when dancing and singing through the village with wishes for good luck and increase in the yield.
“Here We Come A-Wassailing” in the early days it was hoped that the workers would be given food or a few coppers for a Christmas booze-up.
One of the songs of the period that always appealed to me was, “The Derby Ram”, once, Gods were worshipped in the form of animals, the great totem beast was the tup, the ram, of huge capacities and dauntless potency. Yet like the mighty beast himself, the song proved hard to kill.
Michael Waterson sings the solo.
The twelve days following Christmas were among the most critical of the year, when the sun was at its feeblest and it was thought all manner of demons were abroad.
“Jolly Old Hawk”, was a recitation litany-like of formulas. Cecil Sharp found the song at Bridgewater in Somerset.
We turn now to spring and the “Pace-Egging Song” comes from the fact that the egg is taken as a handy symbol of life in many parts of the world.
Here in the north-west the pace-eggers go round begging for eggs and in some cases performing a version of the mummers’ death - resurrection play. In some versions, sun- dry masked heroes appear, fight, are slain, and brought back to life by a comic doctor.
“Seven Virgins or The Leaves of Life”, concerning a trip made by Mary to see her son at Calvary, in the company of seven virgins.
Another spring carol is “The Holly Bears a Berry”, proper to the period between Passiontide and Easter. In it, the evergreen holly is celebrated along with the dying and resurrected god. In tradition, this carol lasted longest in Cornwall. It shares some verses with the better known “The Holly and the Ivy”.
A song that I have taken part in many times is “Hal-An-Tow”. In May a procession of the May king and queen; a sword or Morris dance of disguised men; a hobby horse dance; a Robin Hood play. A version of it still accompanies the Helston Furry Dance on May 8th.
At one time, the old death and resurrection folk play was performed all over these islands. In the “Earsdon Sword Dance Song”, the sword-dance part of the drama survives, notably among miners.
There are so many variations of the next song and it continues to be one of the best loved traditional songs it tells of the Corn-King cut down and rising again. Sometimes called the Passion of the Corn. Cecil Sharp obtained this version of “John Barleycorn” from Shepherd Hayden of Rampton, Oxfordshire, again it’s sung by Michael Waterson.
“We Gets Up In the Morn”, and the harvest is embellished with many customs with plaited images called corn dollies in the fields and ceremonies attached to the last sheaf cut, and then it’s last home to the Harvest Home supper attended by all hands.
We switch to Autumn and the “Souling Song”, during the time that surrounds hallowe’en, All Saints and All Souls a time once thought full of magic.
Beggars and others used this Christmas offering, “Christmas is Now Drawing Near at Hand”, it could be traced back to the sixteenth century, Elaine Waterson sings in a form common among gipsies.
A ballad carol, thirty verses long, tells of 2 birds, a crow and a crane, conversing about the story of the Nativity.
“Herod and the Cock”, deals with one incident in this ballad. Cecil Sharp obtained this version from Worcestershire.
We end as we began, with a “Wassail Song”, sung from house to house at mid-winter for luck. The Wassailers, perhaps five or six of them, carried a wooden bowl decorated with holly and ivy in which to collect money or bread and cheese or beer, in return for the good luck wishes conveyed by this song, this version lead by Mike Waterson, is one familiar in the West Country and extend- ing into Wales.
These traditional songs need to be sung and put in front of people lest we forget our heritage.