Remembering the Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, December 2000)

Earlier this year, Lyle and I switched months in the Old Songs cycle. He said it was because he was taking a vacation. I think the real reason was to get out of having to do the Christmas column.

Christmas, and religion in general, just isn't a common theme in traditional song. I won't bother proving the point; just take a look at the lists of Child and Laws ballads, or most of the regional song collections. They flatly don't have religious songs -- or if they do, they're songs people learned in church; these aren't really traditional. I have, in fact, used up every genuinely traditional American Christmas song I know, other than pop Christmas carols. (Which is rather ironic, since the pop Christmas carols are the only traditional songs most people hear these days.)

So back we go into the archives of the old British songs.

The Coventry Carol is perhaps not actually traditional (and not by origin a Christmas song). In fact, it came about as close to extinction as it possibly could; the only surviving ancient copy was burned in a library fire in 1875, and we are dependent upon two very bad transcriptions from the early nineteenth century. We literally aren't sure of either the words or the music; either may have been copied in error. I'll give you the words as we have them first, and then a modernized version.

This song was originally associated with the English Mystery Plays. Every year at Corpus Christi (a spring religious festival), the guilds of the various towns would put on a series of plays illustrating Bible stories. In a time when the Catholic Church refused to sanction Bibles in English, this was one of the few ways peasants could learn anything about the Bible.

Most of the Mystery Cycles have vanished; they were suppressed during the Reformation, and we have only a handful of manuscripts left. It's likely enough that many of these plays contained music, but any such music has been lost.

The state of the Coventry cycle is worse than usual. Only two of the several dozen plays survived into modern times. But one of those two -- the pageant of the Shepherds and Tailors -- had two songs appended at the end. They may not have been original, but they seem to have been in place by 1591.

There is so much to say about this song! It fascinates me in many ways. First, note the fact that it can end "terpsichore" -- i.e. on E major rather than minor.

Then there is the history. The Massacre of the Innocents is obviously Biblical (Matthew 2:16), but the history of Herod found in Josephus implies that there is more to the story than we see in the Bible. Herod was a brute (he murdered three of his own sons), and at best marginally sane, but the Massacre doesn't sound like him. Maybe I'll get to explain that some time; for now I'm out of space.

Coventry Carol

Ancient Text:
Lully lulla, thow littell tine child,
By, by, lully lullay, thow littell tyne child,
By, by, lully lullay!

O sisters too, How may we do
For to preserve this day
This pore yongling, For whom we do singe
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod, the king, In his raging,
Chargid he hath this day
His men of might In his owne sight
All yonge children to slay

That wo is me, Pore child, for thee,
And ever morne and [may]
For thi parting Neither say nor singe,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Modern Version:
Lully lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by lully lullay.

Oh sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By by lully lullay.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All children young to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and pray.
For thy parting, neither say nor sing,
By by lully lullay.

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