Jill talks with musician and librarian Barry Trott about Christmas music from the 1600 and 1700s in the United States and Europe.
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Barry Trott: Historical Christmas Music
Connections: A Podcast of the James L. Hamner Public Library
Published February 9, 2022
Transcripts are edited to aid with ease of reading. Verbal fillers, stuttered phrases, sounds of listening, and laughter are generally removed, but grammatical errors and similar verbal idiosyncrasies are included. Ellipses (…) are used to indicate unfinished sentences or interruptions.
[Introduction Music and Disclaimer] Welcome to Connections, a podcast of the James L. Hamner Public Library. I’m your host, Jill, and the ideas in this episode represent the opinions and experiences of the speakers. They may not represent the library’s official position.
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Jill: Hello, everyone! I am so pleased to be back with an episode with a guest. I know it has been a while. Thank you for sticking with us, or if you are just joining us, thank you for being here.
I am pleased for today’s episode. It has been in the works for a long time and I had to reschedule with our guest, Barry Trott, at least three times. Then I had to take some time out of work for a little bit. All is well, just the normal course of life. But, when I got back it was budget season. I needed to submit the library’s budget for next year to the County. And we had some other projects going on. And I was recording with Barry. And we had just gotten Adobe Audition, so I was trying to learn how to use that. It is not very intuitive if you have not used a similar program before. And we decided that this would be an excellent time to change the library’s entire operating program. The timing was more that’s just the time that it needed to happen and it just - everything else all together made it challenging timing.
For people who work in libraries, we migrated our ILS – our Integrated Library System. So, if anybody has worked in a library, you know what was happening right after I had been out of the library for a few weeks and was coming in and everything was happening all at once for most of January.
So, listeners, even though this episode was recorded in early January and Barry mentions a specific date, the reason it is not being published until mid-February is because everything else was happening and then I had to learn how to use Adobe Audition to edit and I am still learning. So, we are just going to get into the episode. Here is your Christmas episode that I had hoped to have recorded and edited and published before December so it was ready to go for the Christmas season, and instead we were recording in January. It’s also about music. So, here we are.
Barry Trott is a professional musician who is also a librarian and he plays historical music, which is what we are talking about today.
Barry, you and I are both librarians and we always like people to know where their information is coming from. So, will you tell us why people should believe what you say, why you’re qualified to talk about this topic that you’re going to tell us about?
Barry: Well, you’ll have to, I guess, research my background to officially confirm all this. When I graduated from college in 1983, I started working for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as a bookbinder, actually. And shortly thereafter started playing music for them. And so, since 1984, so we’re coming up on, what, 40 years? I have researched and played music of the 17th and 18th centuries, focusing really on, I guess, what we would think of more now as the traditional music, in a sense. We would call it folk music, perhaps, nowadays. Though, in the 18th century, they wouldn’t have made those distinctions. So, I’ve been doing this for a long time. So, I guess, from a credibility perspective, you’d have to go back and find the videos, and find the recordings and the articles and things, but I will confirm that I wrote them all.
Jill: And you have personal experience with today’s topic?
Barry: Yeah! Very much so. Before I became a librarian, this is what I did. This is how I made my living. So, I’ve played in some ensembles that did 18th-century music and we traveled around the East Coast, mostly. We made it out as far as - where did we go? Kentucky, I guess. Most of the original - I’ve played in most of the original colonies. So, yeah! It’s been an interesting career. And I’ve been really fortunate that as I became a librarian, I was able to still play music as part of my work, as well as my avocation, I guess.
Jill: For people who are still trying to figure out 17th and 18th centuries, what years those are?
Barry: Great question! The music that I have focused on, in terms of the historical music, is really from the, probably really, from the late 15th century. So actually, from the late 1500s. I get confused on this, too, myself. The late 1500s. So, the Queen Elizabeth - if you think Queen Elizabeth. She, I don’t remember her exact dates. But, around 1550s, maybe? She became queen. And was queen up until right around 1600. Just before Jamestown was settled. So, really from that late 1500s all the way through the end of the Revolutionary Period, end of the 1700s. So that 200-year period, say from 1580s to 1780s, 1790s.
Jill: When was Shakespeare?
Barry: Shakespeare was definitely right in there. You know, sort of late 1500s on up into – I think he died around 1614, 15?
Barry: We could look it up.
Jill: We could. At least now we have a general idea.
Jill: For today, we were hoping to talk a bit about holiday music.
Jill: Or winter holidays, Christmas or whatever would be appropriate for the time period. So, what century, I guess, are you focusing on?
Barry: Well, I think we could talk both about the 17th and 18th centuries, because I think there was a lot of overlap there. Some of that overlap continues to today, right? Some of the songs that we still associate with Christmastime go back to that period. And, you know, we’re singing versions of them. Or sometimes the exact same song that was being sung in, especially in Great Britain.
I guess I should say, my focus has been not just chronological in that time period, but also really on the music of the British Isles and what became British North America.
Jill: What’s one example of a song we’re still singing today?
Barry: I think one of the ones that everybody would recognize is “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Or, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Which is really the way the original song was. I think we think about “merry gentlemen” as guys having a good time. It’s “God rest ye merry, gentlemen.” It’s more of a command or a statement.
Jill: Or a benediction?
Barry: Yeah! Yeah, sort of, that’s right! It could be, actually. I hadn’t really thought about that. I like that.
Jill: Because I’ve seen the comma and I always thought it was a benediction like “God keep you in good spirits.”
Barry: “God rest ye merry, gentlemen.” Yeah. Absolutely.
So that song goes back to the 17th century, early 17th century, and was published then, sort of continuously up ‘til now.
Jill: And then, there are some that we are not familiar with, at least in the United States. Because, I can’t remember the name, but I read a story, a Christmas story*, that was published in the 1800s, and in that story is some text from a Christmas song that apparently was extremely well known at the time. And I’d never even heard of it…
Jill: And I can’t think of what it is, right now.
Barry: I’ll be interested to know what that was.
But there were, sure, there were hundreds of Christmas songs that were published, you know, over those years. I think sometimes we think about music back in, you know, earlier days as not being a published thing, that it was all being translated or transferred in the oral tradition. But there were lots and lots of music book published in the 17th century, in the 18th century. And in the 19th century, a lot of collections were made of those earlier songs. You know, you can get on Google books now, particularly, and look at these amazing collections of “Christmas carols from the 15th century to the modern times,” and things like that, that were published by song collectors in the 1850s, 1870s, periods like that.
Jill: Thinking about holiday music, are we talking specifically about Christmas, or was there another dominant holiday in these time periods?
Barry: Well, I think that’s a really great question and it, timely, too. Because just last week we celebrated January 6, which is known as Epiphany, usually nowadays. Right? We think of that as sort of Three Kings Day. In the 18th century, especially, and the 17th century, that was really considered the end of the Christmas season. Especially the Christmas celebratory season.
Christmas was really divided into sort of two pieces, at that time. There was sort of the religious side of Christmas, which were those days leading up to Christmas Day and Christmas itself, sort of set aside for religious devotion. But then from the 25th through January 6 were those 12 days of Christmas that are mentioned in the song. Right?
That’s why we have the song “on the twelfth day of Christmas” kind of thing. Which I don’t remember all those pipers piping and drummers drumming and all those things. But each one of those was a day. So, the 26th, 27th, on through Twelfth Night, which was the fifth of January, the night before Twelfth Day. Sort of Twelfth Day Eve, if you will. That was the end, then, of the Christmas season. The celebrations sort of all culminated, often, in big parties or gatherings or dances on Twelfth Night.
Jill: But Christmas during the 17 and 1800s, is that what we’re talking about?
Barry: 1600s, 1700s.
Jill: 1600s, 1700s. Christmas was still a pretty big deal. Or at least, commonly celebrated.
Barry: Commonly celebrated, certainly, you know, with some gaps. Right? So, when 1642, in England, when King Charles the First was executed and Cromwell and the Puritans took over, they really almost banished Christmas, really. They thought that was a frivolous, you know, lack of serious approach to religion.
So, for that, let’s see, 40s to 1660? 18, 20 years? That the Puritans, you know, the Commonwealth Period it’s referred to in England. That was a period where Christmas was not celebrated. But also, lots of other things were not celebrated. No May Poles and all that kind of stuff. You know, it was only after 1660 when the Stuart family, Charles the Second, was restored to the throne that Christmas sort of became again very big.
Here in America, the geographic distribution was similar, right? Down here in Virginia, Christmas would have been a bigger celebration than it was in Puritan New England.
Jill: And my understanding of early American history, that was largely because the Puritans saw Christmas as a time – kind of like we modern people see New Year’s Day.
Jill: On Christmas people would go out and get drunk and there would be fights and brawling in the streets. And this is why the Puritans objected to it, not that they hated celebrating Christ’s birth or whatever.
Barry: Right. It was, it, they, it was all the non-religious pieces, right? Those customs of wassailing. You know, going around and wishing…
Jill: Getting drunk.
Barry: Right. Yeah. Right. Wishing people good health in the new year but getting really drunk while you’re doing it. And, you know, and then that could cause problems. I mean, there’s a great description of a wassailing gone bad in Salem, Massachusetts in 1679 where four young men came to the house of a guy who was noted for making pear cider. And they insisted that it was, it was Christmas Day and they came to drink cider. And ended up sort of throwing stones at his house and breaking down his fences and stealing apples, ‘cause he wouldn’t serve them any cider. So, wassailing can go bad.
But at the same time, there was also Christmas songs that we would think of more as the carols. You know, the religious songs. And they were sung also during that time period. You know, between Christmas Day and New Year’s. Probably didn’t sing them in church so much. The church singing tended to be psalms and very formal religious songs. But there’s lots of these carols that were then sung. And, you know, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” say being an example or, you know, “Angles We Have Heard On High,” another great 18th-century carol from Charles Wesley.**
Jill: Even the things that in modern times, or contemporary to when we’re recording this, I guess, a lot of those carols we consider to be religious - belonging in the church, and then there’s some debate on whether they belong outside of the church. But, are you saying that in the 1600s, those were the ones that were outside of the church?
Barry: They probably more often were sung, I think, outside of church, yeah.
Barry: That, the church music tended to be pretty formal and pretty narrow in many ways.
Jill: When a church was celebrating Christmas in a more staid, religious form, were there commonly accepted restrictions on the topics that could be sung in a religious song or the kinds of instruments or any instruments or any, like meter, or like did it have to be always in four-four, or like, were there conventions that people considered?
Barry: Yeah, certainly instruments…
Jill: Six-eight in there a little bit?
Barry: I like that! Could you swing it? Probably not.
I think that’s a great point that the music in church tended to be very structured. And so, in terms of instruments, it’s going to vary from place to place and time to time, obviously. But it tends not to have a lot of instrumentation. Certainly, in the Puritan Period it’s much more just vocal music. You’re just singing with no instruments. You’re certainly not going to find, you know, fiddles in church and things like that very often. Maybe horns, brass, things of that nature.
But that music was still being played, just outside of the formal church structure. So, these carols and things like that. ‘Cause people played music for their own entertainment and amusement much more than we do now. Right? We’re more likely to open up iTunes or ask Alexa to play us something. Whereas, if you’re sitting around in England or in Virginia in the 17th or 18th centuries, and wanted some music, you would be most likely to just play it for yourself.
Jill: Right. Would that mean that on the secular side, there’s a greater variety of instruments used and ways of playing music?
Barry: Absolutely. Yeah. So, I mean, in terms of the instruments, it’s going to be whatever you have to hand. Right? If you’re in a well-to-do family in London in 1620, say, you might have recorders. You know, the wind instruments that are still played in schools today. So, wind instruments like that: recorders, flutes. Maybe brass.
Then in terms of string instruments, certainly violin. But the lute, you know, which is a multi-string instrument. They vary from, anywhere from six pairs of strings to as many as 12 or 14 pairs of strings later on in the Baroque Period. Cittern was another instrument, which is sort of, I guess, related to the mandolin - probably would be the closest thing in sound. It was a wire-strung instrument. It’s a little jangle-y, almost banjo-y in its tone. But those were some of the really popular…
But then you have the viola de gamba, which was a bowed instrument. Most people see them and think, “Oh, that’s a funny looking cello.” But it has frets on it, like a guitar. And you hold the bow in a slightly different way. My wife is a viola de gamba player, so I’m pretty up on gambas. We have a lot of them around the house. But that was sort of the premier bowed instrument from the 1500s well into the 18th century. And then cello sort of took over. Cello’s louder and a bigger sound.
Jill: In general, the instruments that are closer to what we use today are louder than the instruments that were used in 1500s.
Barry: By and large. That’s a perfect point, yeah. Absolutely. Even the old violins, like a Stradivarius violin, you know, that it might be worth millions and millions of dollars is not a, probably not original to what Stradivarius built it as. They’ve probably had the neck reset so that it has a bigger angle on the neck so you can have more tension on the strings and get a bigger sound. So modern instrument-building technology has been applied to a lot of these old instruments to make them usable in a big orchestral situation.
You didn’t really have these big orchestras back in the period we’re talking about, you know. We were just starting to in the 18th century. But most music was played in smaller ensembles.
Jill: Five to seven, three to seven?
Barry: Yeah, something like that. I mean, I heard a great version of The Messiah done, speaking of music we think of as Christmas music, which was done with one singer to a part, a very small ensemble. I think it was two violins, viola, viola de gamba, flute, oboe, maybe a trumpet, and a harpsichord. So, eight players? Maybe? And it was a really neat – to hear it in a small chamber with a very limited number of… compared to what we think of Messiah as this huge production, you know, cast of thousands. Which is cool, too.
Jill: It is, but when I have heard music that, you know, is in a room like the average modern living room…
Jill: And then you have an ensemble of three to five, seven, depending, usually three to five people, and then your audience…
Jill: It’s a very, very different experience than going into a huge auditorium or a church sanctuary and having a 50-piece choir and whatever else.
Barry: Exactly. And it’s closer probably to what you would have found going on when that music was written. Much of that music was meant to be played in those small ensembles, and so you have that sort of very intimate setting. You can hear what’s going on maybe a little bit differently than you would in a big orchestral setting.
Which is what makes it fun to play, too. Right? I mean, playing in a small ensemble, you’re much more exposed. You do something that you didn’t intend to, it shows up.
Jill: Yeah. I wonder, if you are in a culture where many people play, because that’s the only way you can get music - play, sing, I use the terms interchangeably…
Jill: Then, there’s a whole wide variety of skill levels and you’re very used to hearing it. So, I wonder if people were more forgiving and just accepted, “Hey, at least we get to hear some music!” And were less critical. You know? I wonder.
Barry: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think it probably goes both ways. I mean, there certainly were professional musicians.
Barry: More over in, say, Europe, than here. And there’s some extremely complex music written, but at the same time, I think you’re right that when people are just playing for their own amusement, it’s a different feeling. You’re there strictly to enjoy yourself, really. You’re not performing for somebody else.
You know, in my family, there’s a lot of musicians. So, I’m, in back in the Before Times, before the pandemic, when we would gather for family gatherings, we would sit around and play, but we might have three generations of people playing. My uncles, from who I learned. And then me and my generation, my brothers or sisters, in-laws. And then our children who started playing with the family group when they were probably five or six, you know. And now are in their 20s and 30s. And often appallingly better than us, musically.
Jill: But when they were six, they were not.
Jill: And you all just sort of had to accommodate, or give leeway, right?
Barry: Exactly! Exactly. Because you’re playing for the amusement of playing, not trying to make a perfect sound.
Barry: Going back to our chronological topic, I think that’s probably more of the way you would have found music being enjoyed in the 1600s and the 1700s. You know, you’re reading through things with friends, with family.
Just like it is in Appalachia, certainly in the early 20th century before recordings became so prevalent, I guess, and radio. You read about these descriptions of people getting together and just playing music for fun.
We were talking about the whole idea of Twelfth Night being the end of the Christmas season? January 6th. And there developed in Appalachia out of that earlier English tradition this whole idea of what there was called “breaking up Christmas.” Where, you know, you celebrate that end of the Christmas season with a big get-together, a musical get-together. People are sitting around playing. Probably also lots of drinking, you know, and all the assorted accompaniments that go along with that, I guess. But these Breaking Up Christmas events were quite big.
Jill: In – I keep getting my numbers wrong - 16th and 17th centuries? Is that what we’re talking about?
Barry: Yeah, late 16th into, through the 18th. So, 1600 through 1700.
There’s a reason I’m not a mathematician! Or a historian.
So, in that time period, have you noticed any characteristics of the music? In that you still notice in the music in the – 2022. What is that? 21st century?
Barry: Yeah, 21st century. That’s a neat idea. I had not, I had never really thought of it that way.
I guess on thing that, we haven’t really talked about this much, but is the prevalence of dance music. We’ve been talking a lot about songs and I think a lot of times when we think about Christmas, we think about carols and, you know, those kind of Christmas songs. But at this time period that we’re talking about, the 17th century, the 1600s, 1700s, dancing was always a part of the Christmas season celebrations.
And so, it’s interesting to think how dance music has both stayed the same, in a sense, right? In that people love to dance, you know. They love to go out and dance, whether it’s square dancing or contra dancing or dancing at the club, you know, or whatever. Ballroom dance – think about the explosion of interest in ballroom dancing now and swing dance in the 21st century.
So, it’s interesting. We have, dance has always remained, I guess, or been part of people’s musical interests. And so, the music that’s being written has been music that people can dance to. And so in the 17th century, the 18th century, you had this variety of dance forms. You know, that were everything from a very formal minuet, you know which is just danced by one couple at a time and it was a chance to show of your fancy clothes and how well you dressed…
Jill: The ultimate in social humiliation?
Barry: And social humiliation if you were not good. And there’s a great story from Virginia. I think it’s from a fellow named Philip Fithian who was from New Jersey but came down to work as a tutor in Virginia in the 1770s, right before the Revolutionary War, and he wrote about a dance where there was an old sea captain and they always got him up to do the first minuet because he thought he danced it so well. But it was just so amusing to watch him. Sort of mean, but you know, this dancing was such a social thing.
George Washington was said to be an amazing dancer. You know, a great skill he had in addition to all his other skills.
Jill: And my understanding is in the 1700s, dance – when we think of a ball, we think of this giant room, hundreds of people. But my understanding is, often in the 1700s, you might have a ball, or a dance, that was in somebody’s private home – 20 people would fill up the place.
Barry: Yep, absolutely. Yeah, or in a tavern. Maybe you have a room in a tavern, something like that.
Jill: And rooms were much smaller, I think, in general.
Barry: Yeah. There’s a description of a Twelfth Night ball held in Alexandria in 17, what, 75, and it talks about 53 people being there. You know, 37 ladies “dressed and powdered to the life, some of them very handsome with as much vanity as is necessary.” So that was in Alexandria in 1775. So I’m sure if you went to Alexandria now, you could find a dance club and 37 ladies dressed with as much vanity as is necessary right now.
Jill: And 20-some men?
Barry: Possibly, yeah. What, 23 men? That’s about the right balance, right? 26 men, 37 women. Typical.
Jill: That’s usually how it ends up – more women than men at a dance.
Barry: Yeah. I think what’s interesting, too, in terms of dancing, is how as each kind of new dance style came along, it was often considered scandalous, at first. Right? So, just like when the twist came along. That was scandalous. Or pick your scandalous dance of the 21st century. I have to admit, I’m not up on dancing in clubs.
But in the, right around 1800, there was a big change that was hugely scandalous. And that was the move from the formal dance being the minuet to the formal dance being the waltz. “That scandalous dance!”
Jill: Because a minuet’s side by side, holding hands. A waltz, you’re basically hugging.
Barry: Right. Exactly. Minuet, you’re pretty social distanced. You come as close as an arm’s length. But the waltz, yeah. You’re putting your arms around each other?! I blush just to think about it!
But there were editorials in newspapers, including in the London Times, which I think this was around 1812, said, “We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the waltz was introduced at the English court on Friday last. It’s quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs to see that it’s indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. We feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”
Jill: And what would they say of our dances now?
Barry: Exactly! You know, so, dancing has always been part of this celebratory part of Christmas, whether it’s Queen Elizabeth or somebody dancing the scandalous waltz.
Jill: What have you noticed about, not like in modern times the traditional carols that have carried over, but music that is being written in the 20th and 21st centuries, compared to music that was written in the 1700s for Christmas. What have you noticed about their musical qualities? Do they generally have the same rhythm? Old, 1700s, they really favored slow, lullaby type and modern we really favor…I don’t… What are you noticing?
Barry: Yeah, that’s a great question ‘cause, you know, you can get a book like the Oxford Book of Carols, which is sort of the classic collection of Christmas music from the medieval period up to the, well at least into the middle 20th century, probably. And yeah, there’s definitely a movement, I think, as you go forward in time that you have more, maybe more humor in some of the songs.
I mean, are we talking about Christmas songs that are religious or are we talking about Christmas songs that are, you know, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus”?
Jill: Let’s talk about what people would hear on the radio today compared to what people would just be playing in their homes in the 1700s.
Barry: Yeah. Probably definitely more of the – well, I can’t even say that, though. I was going to say more of the humorous stuff now, right, and the lighter, bouncier - but there’re plenty of Christmas drinking songs and songs about the big Christmas feasts we’re going to be eating where the goose… We celebrate the goose. We celebrate the mince pies and all the ale. Those wassailing songs. Right? That are songs about wishing your neighbors good health in the new year.
I think that, the songs that, and this might just be in general, the songs in the 17th and 18th centuries so often reflected the people’s day-to-day lives in ways that maybe they don’t do as much now. Right? So, these songs about wassailing, you would not just wish your neighbors good luck in the new year? Right? You would also wassail the crops so that they could grow well, especially the apple trees, the pear trees, and the barley. And the hops. Because those are the four things that the wassailers wanted to make sure grew well.
And then you’d also wassail the animals. So, a lot of these wassail songs mention Fillpail, the cow. So, you wassail the sheep and the cows. And they mention them by name! “Here’s to Dobbin,” “here’s to Fillpail,” and all those.
So, there’s this tie perhaps to a rural culture, perhaps, that we don’t have as much in our Christmas music nowadays.
Jill: Other than that tie to daily life, can we infer anything about what people valued in the 1700s compared to today, based on their popular songs?
Barry: I would say family, good companionship, good food. You know, Christmastime, maybe. That’s a reflection that these were food that you don’t necessarily get year-round. That, you know, you celebrate these things at Christmastime because they’re unusual. But that’s true of us nowadays, too, right?
Jill: But our songs, the songs that show up on the Top 40 on the radio, that are about Christmas, what I’ve noticed is that they tend to be more of the dark humor, “grandma got run over by a reindeer,” those sorts of things, and less these joyous…
Jill: Joyous, “yay, we get to meet with family,” you know?
Barry: Celebratory songs. Or, they tend to be more nostalgic for some other time, and that might be a reflection of the confusion that many people feel about the world today.
I, that if you look to music, as some people look to reading – right - as an escape. So, are these songs maybe ways to get back to what people think of as a simpler time? Even though it maybe really wasn’t a simpler time, and if you were living then, it certainly wasn’t a simpler time.
But, I do think you still find some of that in the early Christmas music – the looking back to those feasts that we used to have kind of thing. But not anywhere near as much. I think it’s much more that celebration and “this is an exciting time for us, so let’s celebrate joyfully.”
And lot more Latin.
Jill: Even in the popular music?
Barry: Oh, yeah. Even if it’s just in choruses. “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Those kind of things. But that was reflective of the church, too, I guess, at the time.
Jill: And this is primarily English-language music we’re talking about, right?
Barry: Exactly. You do find a lot of carols that are what they call “macaronic” that don’t have anything to do with pasta, but they’re a mix. Which is what macaroni really was, originally, with this idea of a, it was a dish that was a mix of noodles and eggs and meat, things like that. So, that’s where the whole “Yankee Doodle, macaroni” thing came from.
Jill: I knew “macaroni” mean something very specific, but I, it wasn’t…
Barry: Is that? Did you know that?
Barry: Yeah, so, in that song – we’ll diverge from Christmas to “Yankee Doodle” here for a second ‘cause you can’t just leave that hanging, I guess.
Barry: In 18th-century England, well-to-do young men often went on a tour of Europe, right, as part of their education, and they brought back these customs, traditions, new food. And so they started a club called the Macaroni Club. As I said, macaroni was a dish of mixed things. And the Macaroni Club distinguished themselves by elaborate dress: huge wigs that might be two or three feet tall with a tiny hat perched on top and lace everywhere and embroidery, dressed up just like those ladies at the Twelfth Night ball with as much vanity as necessary, or even more.
So, in the Revolutionary War, of course, then the English soldiers, “Yankee Doodle” was originally an English song making fun of the Americans who thought they could stick a feather in their simple country cap and think they were the height of macaroni fashion.
But a macaronic song is one that mixes languages. So, you do have a lot of these songs, especially Christmas songs, that maybe have a verse that’s half in Latin and half in English. And so, you do find some of that.
Probably the best-known one nowadays is called “The Boar’s Head Carol,” if people remember any one. That’s an old carol from the 16th century, from Cambridge, I think, England. The verses are in English and the choruses in Latin, coming from Cambridge University.
Jill: Don’t we do that with “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful”?
Barry: We could, yeah. I mean, “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” right, was originally written in Latin, all of it. “Adeste fideles.” Lots of Christmas songs have the Latin choruses, right? The “gloria in excelsis Deo” or things like that. So yeah, so that combination of languages is certainly something we don’t see much nowadays.
Jill: Maybe a little bit in the United States, English and Spanish. But it’s certainly not highly predominate.
Barry: No, absolutely.
Jill: So, as we are wrapping up, is there anything that you would really like to tell us about Christmas music in these early times?
Barry: It’s really fascinating to listen to and there’s lots and lots of great recordings out there, so I think if this is a topic that has whetted your interest, perhaps, there’s a lot of opportunities to listen to Renaissance and Baroque-period Christmas music, both carols, and, you know, the traditional, as well as the more formal.
You know, there are a lot of recordings of Revels celebrations. Those became popular up in New England back in the 1970s, I think, sort of as a way to celebrate all the different kinds of Christmas music that were popular. And so, a lot of Christmas Revels or shows were held up in Boston, but also in Philadelphia and Washington – big cities. So, you can find these Christmas Revels recordings.
And I certainly would say, if you’re looking for songs to sing, different songs to sing at Christmas, look for The Oxford Book of Carols. It’s really a wealth of exciting and fun music with lots of good stories, too.
Jill: Does it have Fill-up Cow or whatever you said? Fill the Pail Cow or what…
Barry: Yeah, yeah, I think it does. That’s the “Gloucester Wassail.” I believe the “Gloucester Wassail” is in the Oxford Book of Carols, as is the “Somerset Wassail,” with different cows, and it’s got a whole bunch of wassail songs. But it also has the stories behind the songs, which is, you know, equally fun to look into.
Jill: Do you know, are most of these in public domain now?
Barry: Sure. Anything that was originally published prior to, what, 1926, I think now? I think that was the year that changed over on January 1st. So, yeah. So, all of the 18th-century, 17th and 18th-century, Christmas songs would – and 19th-century, too, for that matter. You know, “What Child is This,” “We Three Kings,” all those great, big Christmas songs.
I think so many of what we think of as the songs of Christmas were sort of written in the 1840s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, many of them. But all of those would be in public domain now.
Jill: So, for songs that are in the public domain, often times old sheet music can be challenging for the modern person to read.
Jill: But, if it’s in the public domain, you can easily make your own edition, right?
Jill: Put it in the key you want. Arrange it as you want. So, you can make it usable for what you specifically need.
Barry: Absolutely. The only thing you can’t do, really, is copy somebody else’s arrangement.
Barry: But, an arrangement that’s in the public domain – so if this was arranged back in 1820, you can use that arrangement without any worries.
What you can’t do is take somebody’s arrangement from last week of “We Three Kings” and use that. I mean, or publish, you can’t publish that. You can play it.
Jill: Right. You need to make sure you’re getting the original composition, and then you can make it what you need.
Barry: Yep. And that’s the fun part about it. Right? As a musician. What’s cool for me about the historical music is you have the two parts. You have the research part, which satisfies my librarian brain. And then you have the performing part, the, you know, the arranging the music and putting the songs together, the figuring out who’s gonna play what part and how it’s gonna work. And that satisfies the creative brain.
Jill: I have an oddball question here. Completely off topic, but something that you mentioned earlier.
Jill: So, you said you grew up in a family where people would just play music together as entertainment. For people who are not from that kind of family, but maybe they want to start that in their own family because they’ve learned to play an instrument and so on, what would be your suggestions? Because it can be really awkward to be like, “Hey, all you people who aren’t used to doing anything other than talking at our family gatherings, sing with me!”
Barry: Yeah. No, I mean, that’s a great point.
Maybe instead of trying to get everybody to do it, find the one or two people and you sort of sit off, maybe in the corner, and, at the first gathering. But what you’ll find then, I think, is that people will come and listen.
So, not everybody plays in our family. And it used to be that, you know, those of us who were interested in playing would say, “Oh, it’s after dinner; do you wanna get together and pick a little bit?” So, we’d go sit in the family room and there might be four or five of us there playing. But pretty soon, there’d be 10 or 15 people ‘cause folks would come and sit on the side and just listen or sing along when there was an opportunity to sing along.
So, don’t feel like you have to get everybody doing it. But just find one or two people who wanna mess around with some music and start doing it.
Jill: And what do you do, because not everybody has been playing the same music, so how do you find a common song or piece?
Barry: So, there’s a couple of different ways. You can use sheet music, if people read sheet music. But, you can also just sort of, if people have a basic understanding, say if they, guitar or ukulele, you know, something that’s chordal, you just walk through the chords real quick and say, “Here are the chords of the song,” and they’ll pick it up as you go.
And if they play a melody instrument, violin or mandolin or flute or whatever it happens to be, then they can just play the melody, figure it out as they go along. That idea of learning by ear is really important, anyway.
I know that sounds, it probably sounds more challenging than it might actually be. But it’s just, yeah, it’s just a matter of just finding some common repertoire.
Jill: Yeah, and I wonder if somebody were in this situation, one, maybe just accepting, it’s gonna be awkward for a while, and two, making it really clear, “We’re all just figuring this out; it’s just for fun, so don’t get stressed.”
Barry: It’s just for fun! It’s not a concert.
Jill: Right? Because sometimes I think people can feel like “that person’s been playing for ten years and I’ve only been playing for six months, so now I don’t wanna play with them because I’m embarrassed” and in this particular context maybe making it really clear, “It’s fine.”
Barry: Yeah. Yeah. We’re just having, we’re just here to have fun.
You definitely, sometimes you start by playing to the least common denominator. Right? So, you ask that person who’s only been playing for six months, “What’s a tune you know really well or a tune you want to play,” and then you play that for a long time ‘til they’re comfortable. That’s the way we would do with the little kids when they were just starting. Right? You made sure that every so often you picked a tune that they knew really well so they could do something with it. And then the rest of the time, they’re sitting and learning, too.
Jill: Well, maybe that also will give some people some ideas.
Barry: I hope so.
Jill: Maybe in their own families, the people who are keeping their small, small COVID bubbles, maybe now you’ve just given them another activity to try out.
Barry: Yeah. You can always pick up an instrument. Right? It’s never too late.
Jill: And, in your own family, my personal opinion is if you can bang on it, it can be a drum. So, you really don’t need any musical talent if you can follow a singer and just beat on whatever makes some noise.
Barry: Yeah. Yeah.
Jill: In this particular context, you know. I, maybe not perform it that way.
Barry: Right, right. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. No. Use what you have.
We’ve had real big mixes of banjos, guitars, mandolins, with viola de gamba. You have Renaissance instruments, Appalachian instruments, wind instruments, just whoever’s around. Doesn’t matter.
Jill: Alright, well, Barry, is there anything else you would like to say in conclusion about anything that we’ve talked about?
Barry: Well, just that, again, that Christmas music is just one piece of historical music, but it’s a really fun one. And I think for people getting into historical music, or looking at older music, Christmas music can be a great entrée into the broader world of early music.
Jill: Well, Barry, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us and give us a little insight into a piece of music history that we probably did not get in music history class.
Barry: Possibly not. It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you, Jill.
Jill: Listeners, I hope that you have enjoyed this conversation with Barry, maybe learning a little bit about the music of the early European United States. Of course, there is music from many other cultures and backgrounds that was taking place in that time period that could also be learned about and explored, but every episode needs a focus, so today we focused on music of the time period that was primarily influenced by European countries.
If you have a favorite musical period that you would like us to consider doing an episode on, send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Outro with Music]: Until next time, keep learning.
*”Christmas Storms and Sunshine” by Elizabeth Gaskell
**On listening to the published episode, Barry realized that he confused the angels. He meant to say “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” was written by Charles Wesley.