Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Frost and Fire

With a few notable exceptions so-called "holiday music" tends to make me cringe. If I'm trapped in a department store in December -- something I naturally try to avoid at all costs -- the sound of "The Little Drummer Boy" or Andy Williams crooning "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" is generally enough to send me running for the exits even faster than I normally would. But Frost and Fire, by the superb English vocal quartet known as the Watersons, is no ordinary "holiday" record. In fact it's not entirely a Christmas record at all; befitting its subtitle -- A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs -- it includes Easter and harvest songs as well as Christmas hymns and wassails, few of them familiar to American ears. It's a very English record, and there are no dancing snowmen here (not that I have anything against Frosty, mind you), but Lord Nelson and Napoleon make appearances, along with Herod, a rather malicious boy Jesus (who gets soundly spanked for his misbehavior), and a very large and well-endowed ram. Though most of the songs are at least ostensibly Christian, the record includes such cryptopagan curiosities as "John Barleycorn" (later famously covered by Traffic with vocals by Steve Winwood). It also includes the eerily beautiful "Idumea," written by John Wesley's brother Charles, which has to be the strangest Christian hymn I've ever heard.

In their original configuration, the Watersons were two sisters from Yorkshire, Norma and Lal Waterson, their brother Mike, and their cousin Mike Harrison. After Harrison moved on he was replaced by Norma's husband, the guitarist and folk singer Martin Carthy, who is perhaps best known in the states for having involuntarily loaned his arrangement of "Scarborough Fair" to Paul Simon. Lal Waterson died ten years ago, but a successor group still tours as Waterson: Carthy. Though they are sometimes described as "harmony singers," the term is apparently not apt; according to Paul Adams
They ... rarely achieve four-part harmony. At times only one person is singing a harmony line and the others are in unison. Sometimes they are all in unison but drift into two or three parts at the end of a line. In their case it is the blend of voices which makes it sound like harmony.
Whatever the musicological truth may be, the group's rousing, earthy sound is like nothing else I've ever heard. I don't listen to this record that often, but when the chill weather starts in I invariably reach for it.

The original Frost and Fire LP, which came out in 1965, featured the first quartet and was entirely a cappella, except for a drum beat here and there. The Topic re-issue I own includes six songs from a second LP, Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy, which was originally released in 1977 by the version of the group including Martin Carthy and which features a brass quartet on one cut. Unfortunately this combined release appears to have been discontinued, so the CD currently available only includes the original Frost and Fire.

There's a fine documentary about the Watersons called "Travelling for a Living"; it's included in the group's 2004 retrospective boxed set, Mighty River of Song. Below is an excerpt. It's actually a May Day song, but I couldn't turn up any clips of their Christmas material. No one seems to be sure what if anything the words "Hal-An-Tow" mean.


Mal said...

It's good to see some more Watersons-love this side of the pond, Chris.
They also had two Christmas season, house-to-house songs on the album, "For Pence & Spicy Ale": The Apple Tree Wassail & Malpas Wassail; both of which I'm sure you'll enjoy.

Mal said...

One more thing...
I have a very fond memory of seeing the Watersons at the Mariposa folk-festival here in Toronto during the 70s. Lal was with 'em, of course. By the Sunday morning they were, thanks to fatigue, jet-lag and (I suspect) some important drinking, looking fairly brittle. It was early summer and their English blue-white arms and legs had been burned bright pink over the course of the three-day festival. But they sang. Oh, man; how they sang!
Thanks for digging that one loose, Chris.

Chris said...

Thanks, Malcolm. Wish I could have been there.