Wassail All Over the World

The Tetbury Wassailers (Gloucestershire), involved in heavy action. Image from Gloschristmas.com

Gloucestershire wassailers, involved in heavy action. Image from Gloschristmas.com

Is ‘The Wassailing Song’ the surefire Christmas hit that never was? It certainly has all the hallmarks: a big festive singalong, mostly secular lyrics (although the original is clearly pagan in its roots), and big hopes for the future. Our version, which has received a modest amount of airplay on various streaming websites, recently underwent a remaster. The original session tapes were lost long ago, so I had to do it all from the best quality files I could find. It was a joyful process, however, and one that got me thinking about the origins of the song.

When we first performed it to audiences in Japan, rather than explain what ‘to wassail’ meant, we used to make claims that it was some 500 years old, and that it was written somewhere around the beginning of the Edo era. All of these claims were largely hyperbole. I don’t think anybody in the band actually knew how old the song was, or when the Edo era really began (or how to wassail).

Talking about the song back in the UK, there was a guaranteed response/misunderstanding: “Yes, of course I know ‘The Wassailing Song’. It’s that one that goes, ‘Here we come a wassailing amongst the leaves of green’. Everyone knows it.” It’s true, everybody does know that one, but the two songs are vastly different. In fact, ‘The Wassailing Song’, and ‘the one that everyone knows’ are just two in a rather large number of ditties that share very similar titles. I believe the one that takes place amongst the leaves of green is known, sometimes, as ‘Here We Come a Wassailing’, although I’ve seen it titled ‘The Wassail Song’ at various points, too.

‘The Wassailing Song’ – the version that we perform – often goes under the name, ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail’, and according to various academics, it dates back to the middle ages. William Henry Husk wrote in 1868 that, “this carol was seventy years since communicated by Samuel Lysons to Brand, with the information it was then still sung in Gloucestershire, and that the wassailers brought with them a great bowl dressed up with garlands and ribbon”, which means it was a local hit in the late 1700s. He goes on to discuss how the lyrics dealt with a “horse, mare and cow”, named, respectively, “Dobbin, Smiler and Fillpaid”, and there are other reports of wassailers spilling cider over the roots of local trees in the hope for a new and fertile year. An early barnyard rave, perhaps?

The Grizzly Folk’s version, it must be said, owes more to Blur than to any latent paganism. I, like so many other ‘young’ people, came across the song during the surreal Stonehenge scene in their Starshaped film. The repetitive nature of the scene was perfectly scored by the repetitive drone that Albarn plays throughout, and I recall that it has soundtracked many surreal dreams of my own in the years since. Not lucky enough to receive one of the limited edition fanclub 7-inches of the song at the time, and unable to hear it anywhere else, I took to performing my own version (the essence of folk music, right?). Years later, at a Christmas gig in a Japanese café, I pulled it out, just for fun, and was surprised at how instantly successful it was.

Since I own no horse, mare or cow, our version of ‘The Wassailing Song’ reflects what I hope for most at Christmas – friendship and camaraderie. The lyrics are bawdy, but they were sung spontaneously to three friends who were close to the band at the time: David ‘Dai’ Evans (who also sings backing vocals on the track), Eoin Jordan (Dai’s bandmate and a legend on the Fukuoka music scene) and Em Kuntze (a co-Grizzly, and the future Mrs Nice). I think these warm subjects and the Christmassy cause for celebration can all be heard in the recording. I’ve thought about remaking it a few times, just because we have better equipment these days, but I don’t know how I’d recreate that spontaneous energy.

Since recording it, we’ve been delighted to see stats from Last.fm and Soundcloud showing that it has regular listeners from Egypt right across to Chile. Such is the combined power of the internet and the folk song. There have also been two rather cryptic videos made on Youtube with the song as their subject. We’ve been involved in neither, but it’s a thrill to see ‘The Wassailing Song’ thrive. Waes hael to the lot of you!

We’ve released the remastered version in time for Christmas this year, and I hope that it finds its way on to the Christmas playlists of a few dear friends – not just our friends, but yours, too. In the meantime, here’s to Dobbin, Smiler and Fillpail; Dai, Eoin and Em; the Chilean, Egyptian and cryptic wassailers, one and all. With a wassailing bowl, we drink to thee.

The Grizzly Folk’s version of ‘The Wassailing Song‘ is available now from all good digital stockists. 


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