Another seasonal collection on traditionals old and new, familiar and obscure, joined by Yorkshire’s Backstage Brass ensemble with Emily Portman and Tim van Eyken on harmonies, and generally arranged for fiddle and concertina, Glad Christmas Comes is a splendid addition to the folk Christmas baubles to hang on the musical tree, opening in stripped back accordion wheezing style with ‘Ashen Bowl’, a wassail (“Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown/Our bowl is made of a good ashen tree/And oh my kind fellow we’ll drink unto thee”) dating from the 1700s. Moving up a century, ‘Glad Christmas Comes’ is the duo’s unaccompanied setting of a poem by John Clare originally published as ‘December’ in The Shepherd’s Calendar 1827, the line “And oft for pence and spicy ale” having provided the title for the 1971 album by The Watersons.
Written by Adger M Pace and R Fisher Boyce in the 40s, popularised in the 60s by The Stanley Brother and variously recorded by the likes of The Judds, Patty Loveless and the Oakridge Boys, ‘Beautiful Star’ (strictly speaking ‘Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem’) gives the bluegrass number a more Appalachian gospel swayalong treatment. The first of the originals comes with ‘King Of The Birds’, Carthy commissioned to put music to verses by Grassmere storyteller Taffy Thomas and set to ‘Tuesday Morning’, a jaunty accordion-led traditional tune from the 1800s with early music hall flavours.
Singing lead, Boden makes his first contribution with the joyous ‘The Good Doctor’, written in 2012 and cobbled together from assorted mummers’ plays (the Handsworth Mummers appearing on the album’s front cover) with their assorted characters, among them Father Christmas Saint George, the King of Egypt and a quack doctor.
The first of the traditional carols is Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, a quite beautiful rendition with a lengthy instrumental intro before Carthy takes up the vocals. Leafing through the carols songsheet, as the album progresses it also offers up
‘Mount Zion’, otherwise better known as ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’, Carthy interweaving her vocals around Boden’s lead, a swayalong take on ‘The Holly And The Ivy’, the 1833 version of ‘I Saw Three Ships’ with Boden backed by the brass ensemble and, lesser known perhaps, Carthy on fiddle and lead vocals, the traditional 1700s ’Shepherds Arise’.
Dating back to 1611 and written by Thomas Ravenscroft, ‘Remember Oh Thou Man’ is another unaccompanied number, all four voices in service of the song by the carol singers in the opening of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Under The Greenwood Tree’. Of more recent provenance, sounding like something from an American marching band, written by John Rox ‘I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas’ (“I don’t want a doll, no dinky Tinkertoy/I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy…I don’t think Santa Claus will mind, do you?/He won’t have to use our dirty chimney flue/Just bring him through the front door”) was a novelty number which, recorded by 10-year-old Oklahoma child star Gayla Peevey, made the Billboard Top 30 in December 1953 after she performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show a month earlier. Sung by Boden not Carthy as you might expect, he gives it a suitably tongue in cheek bounce. The song’s proved to have a surprising longevity, with recordings also by Gretchen Wilson, LeAnn Rimes, Kasey Musgraves
The longest track at almost eight minutes, and of more credible pedigree, initially sung unaccompanied before Carthy’s fiddle solo and the arrival of guitar, ‘Winter Grace’ is from the pen of Jean Ritchie, part of ‘Appalachian Carols’, a five-movement work featuring traditional hymns and carols from her repertoire. Before ending with a 40-second brass reprise of ‘Glad Christmas Comes’, there’s two songs that have become modern Christmas traditions, the first, opening with fiddle solo, being a tempo shifting ‘Jingle Bells’, written by James Pierpont with the lyrics here being the full original ones from 1857 when it was called ‘The One Horse Open Sleigh’. And, fiddle, concertina and melodeon linking arms, the other is, what else, The Pogues/McColl perennial ‘Fairytale Of New York’, a rather splendid interpretation though purists might baulk at the replacement of “You scumbag, you maggot/You cheap lousy faggot” with “You’re wasted, you’re plastered/You cheap lying bastard”, though I daresay the BBC will be well chuffed.
Capturing the feel of actual carol singers muffled up on the village green, it’s a welcome alternative to the glossed up churned out Nashville and middle of the road fodder that clog the musical arteries at this time of year.