Yet Shall We Be Merry

(Another seasonal reprint. Originally appeared here in January of 2010.) 

Dark wizard Albert Grossman deliberately assembled the folk-singing trio Peter, Paul, and Mary to rake in coin amid the urban folk-revival of the early 1960s. He wanted “a tall blonde, a funny guy, and a good looking guy”: that’s what he got.

But Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers proved to be something more than a quick milk of the cash cow. They introduced millions of young people, including myself, to significant forms of American roots music. Their smooth and engaging arrangements allowed us to enter them, as through a door, and out the other side we encountered lifetimes of music that, without them, we might never have known.

I had not thought much about the group for many years until the “tall blonde,” Mary Travers, passed away in the fall of 2009, on September 16, of leukemia, at age 72. Just as Peter, Paul, and Mary became more than what Grossman had intended, so too did Travers. “This was not,” recalled producer Phil Ramone to Rolling Stone, “a girl who was just going to be cutesy like lead singers had been in bands. She created a much bigger role. She took no prisoners when it was what she believed in.”

In the weeks following Travers’ death, the tubes rang with reprises of the group’s music. But nobody seemed much moved to post or discuss the Peter, Paul, and Mary song that had long most entranced me. So I guess I’ll gas on about it myself, there beyond the “furthur.”

That song is “A-Soalin’.” Paul Stookey’s story is that the song “began as a guitar exercise in the apartment of a Chicago friend. Sitting on the living room floor I was working on this two-voice ascending-descending part and then trying to sing the wassailing tune against it. Peter overheard from the kitchen, added his folk arpeggiated guitar part, and then in rehearsal we realized that the tune of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ would fit nicely as a counter melody.”

Except that songs with similar lyrical material had been using a melody similar to Stookey’s, and/or the one that drives what we know today as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” for hundreds, and perhaps more than a thousand, years. Stookey doesn’t necessarily have to be misstating or misremembering here, because, as will be seen, these melodies and this subject matter began burrowing into the bones of northern European peoples back before we even really began counting time.

“A-Soalin'” is a wassailing song. Wassailing is a pre-Christian, pagan tradition, during which what we might describe as the peasantry would attend the homes of what we might describe as lords, to there, politely, seek offerings of food and drink. In return, the wassailers offered good fortune. Theirs were what is called “luck visits.” The word “wassail” is from the Anglo-Saxon “wæs þu hæl,” which translates to “be thou hale,” which translates to “be in good health.” Lords, in distributing food and drink to the wassailers, sought thereby to assure themselves bodily prosperity during the coming year. The wassailers, meanwhile, would arrive with luck and song, and depart with fruit, nuts, meat, ale, and the like. Wassailing occurred each year around the time of the Winter Solstice.

Some people seek to claim that wassailing arrived in the British Isles with the Normans. But that can’t be right, because the English wassailing song “Somerset Wassail” contains a reference to the sacking of the town of Longport by the Danes, which occurred in the 8th Century, a couple hundred years before the Normans rowed over. The Normans—”Northmen”—were themselves originally Viking pirates and plunderers; they became Normans only when the Franks, weary of their attentions upon what is today known as France, bought them off by offering to cede to them the territory of Normandy, if they would only agree to leave off. The newly christened “Normans” did so; but after a hundred years or so, some of them got restless, and so crossed the Channel, and there took over England.

So all the Norman theory does is indicate that wassailing was an ancient custom prevalent not only in the British Isles, but also across the water on the continent, and up in Scandinavia, too.

When Christianity began gobbling up the souls of the inhabitants of the British Isles, wassailing became associated with Christmas. Still, a number of the wassailing songs delivered by supposedly Christianized carolers retained decidedly secular content. The British composer R. Vaughan Williams, in compiling the several books that arose from his interest in traditional English folk songs, cautioned, in The Oxford Book of Carols, that three of the eight verses of “Wassail Song” “are not suitable when the carol is sung in church.” Stookey’s “A-Soalin” lyrically most resembles this wassailing variant, which Williams theorized Shakespeare probably heard sung outside his house on a winter’s night.

Stookey dumped more God into the lyrics that he removed from “Wassail Song” than were present there in Shakespeare’s time—some of these goddisms he lifted from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”—but then Stookey was already trending then towards the born-againism that would seize him in the late 1960s, and help to break up the act.

Stookey’s “A-Soalin'” tune resembles most closely what Williams rendered in his Book of Carols as “Gloucestershire Wassail,” which itself utilizes what is known among British music people as the “London tune”—the same tune that carries “Here We Come A Wassailing,” “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night,” “Somerset Wassail” (a.k.a, the exuberantly titled “Wassail and Wassail All Over The Town”), and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The latter, the editor of The Penguin Book of Carols fussily insists, should be rendered “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” as for want of the comma, so says he, the meaning is lost.

Though the Abrahamic deity and his various friends and associates may at times have crept into these old pagan wassailing songs, wassailers out and about in England still engage in behaviors that would no doubt give Ratzinger the vapors. In Devon, for instance: “local wassailers go through the orchards singing loudly and banging pots and pans to wake the trees from their winter slumbers and drive out the evil spirits that stop the boughs from fruiting. Copious amounts of cider are poured over the trees’ roots and slices of cider-soaked toast are thrust high into their branches with long-handled forks.”

Strong drink has long been associated with wassailing, which makes perfect sense when you are asking people to wander around outside in frigid northern Europe in late December. Nicholas Culpeper lists in his 1653 Herbal the then-current contents of the wassail cup: two cinnamon sticks, four cloves, two blades of mace, one ginger root, four apples, a teaspoon of nutmeg, four ounces of sugar, and a half-pint each of brown ale and hard cider.

Anyway. From the first time I heard it, as a very young lad, I could really feel “A-Soalin’.” I was a California lad, I had no experience with wassailing, or snow, or bitter cold, much less dirty streets or thin shoes or pockets without a penny. But I felt out in the cold with these people, every time I heard it. And, later, as the vicissitudes of life made their occasional passes at me, I drew comfort and strength from the fact that these wassailers of old, worse off than I, could sing “meat nor drink nor money have I none/yet shall we be merry” . . . and presumably mean it.

In my occasional ventures into oo-ee-oo land, I mused whether I might not have wassailed in “a former life.” Or perhaps, being primarily of northern European stock, the song simply prompted genetic memory. But I don’t think the answer is as simple as any of that. In the video offered below, we see an all-Asian men’s chorus singing this song. These people decidedly do not have any recent genetic memory of wassailing, and the odds that all eleven of them are born-again past-livers of wassailing are just too long to reasonably contemplate. Too, I note, in luluing around YouTube, that Sting, with his nicked version of “A-Soalin'”—dubbed “Soul Cakes”—has been taking the song to Central and South America, where people respond avidly to it, despite not a helluva lot of experience with things like snow and cider and Somerset. They have soul down there, though. And that seems to be all that is necessary, to hook into this one.

Sometimes we tend to forget—or at least I do—that the same globalization that allows predatory capital and AK-47s and cigarettes to roil the world with Badness, also allows things that are good and true to flash round the planet. “A-Soalin'” is a good song, and it connects well with people everywhere. Something small, perhaps, but enough, all in all, to, for at least a minute or two, make us all merry. So thank you, Peter, Paul, and Mary.

14 Responses to “Yet Shall We Be Merry”

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When I Worked

December 2013

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