[Video: “The Wexford Carol,” performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Kraus.]
Let’s get right to it:
Per usual at this time of year, I’m adding ten songs to the previous years’ selections. These are presented in two ways, in two separate little audio-player thingums:
- The complete playlist — now up to ninety songs total (about four and three-quarters hours’ worth).
- The list plays straight through, from start to finish, in the order in which the songs were first presented here at RAMH.
- …but you can also pop out the playlist into its own, compact window. This lets you proceed to read through the rest of the post or use your browser for something else — or close it altogether — while the music’s playing. (Note that the pop-out window will automatically begin playing.)
- If you’d prefer, you can also shuffle the complete list in random order, in a pop-out window, by clicking below:
Pop Out to Shuffle!
- OR you can simply play this year’s list of ten songs (about a half-hour in length). This is pretty straightforward: sequential order, no pop-out window, no shuffle mode.
In either case, or even if you don’t want to listen at all, you might want to glance at the complete current list of song titles and performers. (Note: this is just a listing; you cannot play music from it.)
Okay, here are the two player doo-dads — the complete, followed by the current…
One song in particular has claimed my attention this year, #3 in the 2016 playlist: “On Christmas Day in the Morning.” Not at all because I didn’t already know the song, also often referred to by its first line (“I Saw Three Ships”). No, the main attraction for me has been the song’s history.
The tune itself is familiar enough; the same tune underlies children’s songs like “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” and “Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May.” [*] Because I knew that much, I’d always assumed it to be old — which it is — but I’d never imagined it could be so, well, interesting.
The earliest reference I can find to the tune, under any name, predates by many decades the “I Saw Three Ships/Christmas Day in the Morning” song familiar to me: sheet music for fiddle (a “jig/quadrille,” says that source) published in 1744, under the counter-intuitive title “Piss on the Grass.” (Alas, no lyrics!) That melody, wherever it came from, must have clung to popular sensibility — a mid-18th-century earworm: in 1759, it had a recurring role, so to speak, as a sort of intermission number in a Covent Garden revival of The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay. There it was simply called a hornpipe, a tune which we usually associate with sailors, following tradition. Wikipedia:
It is suggested that hornpipe as a dance began around the 16th century on English sailing vessels. However, this is urban myth, as the dance does not seem to have become associated with sailors until after 1740 when the dancer Yates performed “a hornpipe in the character of a Jack Tar” at Drury Lane Theatre, after which, in 1741 at Covent Garden we hear of “a hornpipe by a gentleman in the character of a sailor.” Movements were those familiar to sailors of that time: “looking out to sea” with the right hand to the forehead, then the left, lurching as in heavy weather, and giving the occasional rhythmic tug to their breeches both fore and aft.
However, the performance of this hornpipe between acts of The Beggar’s Opera did not feature sailors: it featured a young woman, one (Miss) Nancy Dawson, pictured at above right.
The Traditional Tune Archive has gathered quite a bit of information about Miss Nancy Dawson, and I refer you to that site for the details. The bottom line for me is that her rendition of the song was so popular that it became known as “Nancy Dawson’s Hornpipe,” or simply “Nancy Dawson.” She herself doesn’t seem to have been a singer, but eventually some lyrics were put to the tune. The Archive cites a couple of verses:
Of all the girls in our town,
The red, the black, the fair, the brown,
That dance and prance it up and down,
There’s none like Nancy Dawson. etc.
Her easy mien, her shape so neat,
She foots, she trips, she looks so sweet;
Her every motion’s so complete,
I die for Nancy Dawson.
And, in a later version, this charming recasting of her as something of a lazy mess:
Nancy Dawson was so fine
She wouldn’t get up to serve the swine;
She lies in bed till eight or nine,
So it’s Oh, poor Nancy Dawson.
But what of “Three Ships/Christmas Day” itself? Consider the lyrics, for starters.
Says a site which has much to say about many Christmas songs:
The legend about sailing into landlocked Bethlehem can be traced back to the 12th century when three ships brought the relics of the purported Wise Men to Koln, Germany. From this story evolved the English folk carol “I Saw Three Ships,” which, it is thought, comes from the 15th century. The “three ships” refers to the belief that there were three Wise Men — which comes from the number of gifts, although the number of Wise Men has been estimated from two to twelve over the centuries. Over the passage of time, the Holy Family was substituted for the Magi. Ian Bradley gives a version from Kent-Sussex which mentions sitting under a holly tree and two travelers — Mary and Joseph — journeying to Bethlehem to pay taxes.
And, over the passage of time, as the text moved from village to village, and from country to country, the song acquired numerous different variations in texts and tunes (as seen above). According to Keyte and Parrott, editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols, the earliest printed text is from 1666 (John Forbes’ Cantus, 2nd. ed.).
(I searched through a full-text version of Forbes’s Cantus at the Internet Archive; as far as I can tell, the reference to “the earliest printed text” must point to what’s simply described as “The IX. Song.” It doesn’t fit the familiar tune very well — at all, really — but it’s the only song remotely referencing, for example, Bethlehem, Christ’s birth, and the number 3. (No ships, though. And certainly no Nancy Dawsons.) I’ve included a thumbnail version of the two pages in question above and to the right of the quotation; click the image to enlarge it.)
While not wanting to drag out this post much further, I did want to highlight one of my favorite “new music” finds featured in this year’s list, “Christmas Day Is Come.” You can read more about the album on which it appears here, at the Los Angeles Times site.
…and finally, as ever — at this and any other time of year — thank you so much for visiting Running After My Hat. Best wishes for the year-end holiday, in whatever form that holiday takes for you!
* The first version of “Christmas Day in the Morning” which I remember hearing was an instrumental one, played by a muted trumpet. The sprightly tempo of this version, and the sound of this trumpet, reminded me a lot of the theme music from a popular sitcom at the time. They were so similar, in fact, that I imagined them to be the same song. I’m certain I shared this “fact” with numerous family members (to whom I apologize in retrospect for not being as smart as I’d thought… although I certainly talked the walk, so to speak.).
And on the subject of the tune in general, although nothing to do with the Christmastime version(s), I learned some fascinating history about its use in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (both play and film). See this reference for the general story (including a mention of “Piss on the Grass”); for more details, from the perspective of the lyricist who penned the words to Disney’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?,” see this source.