01. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
21st December 2016
Guests: Ben Burnell, electric bass
In 15th century Britain, the church banned any music that wasn’t sung in latin. But the common folk wouldn’t let this stop them having a good time. They sneakily met up in the dark, conspiratorial corners of their taverns and, by candlelight, invented Christmas carols by way of protest. In some ways, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was to the 1400s what Anarchy In The UK was to the 1970s: a rebellious way of ‘sticking it to the man’ and creating music that was accessible to everyone.
I don’t know about you, but this is by far my favourite carol. For a song spouting messages of ‘glad tidings of comfort and joy’ the melody is as sinister as they come. It sounds like the entrance music for a gothic supervillain and I love it. I must have been having a Jethro Tull binge when the Seasons Project kicked off, which you’ll probably notice creeping subtly into the arrangement. Ian Anderson famously got that distinctive Tull sound by singing the tune down the flute while he played and I used this song as an opportunity to try this out on an unsuspecting tin whistle. My foot may even have momentarily levitated from the floor.
02. The Official Brawle
28th December 2016
Guests: Polly Bolton, mandolin / Matthew Mefford, double bass
Music by Thoinot Arbeau
When I was fifteen, my parents took me on a holiday to Holy Island. I have two standout memories: throwing myself to the floor as a WWII mine was detonated on the beach and buying an early music CD called ‘Music To Make Merrie’ from the English Heritage gift shop. Both involved sudden, deafening noises that made me jump but were also tremendously exciting. It was my first proper introduction to early music - proper, gritty minstrel music with rauschpfeifes galore - and I loved it. My ears pricked up when they played a tune I recognised - it was ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’. This was a moment of revelation to me that many songs we take for granted are actually much older and have had lives of their own. Here’s the life of this one.
‘The Official Brawle’ or ‘Branle de L’Officiel’ was originally a 16th century French dance written by a French cleric called Thoinot Arbeau and it had nothing to do with Christmas. Then English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward pinched it and set it to his lyrics ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High…’ There is a similar story behind most carols. In fact, each year thousands of carol singers are being unwittingly tricked into singing folk music.
For this arrangement, I have reverted it back to a tune, but dancing is not recommended because I don’t want to be responsible for the injuries that would inevitably result. Set to a tempo of about ten-thousand bmp, this track is what might happen if a Christmas carol ate too many blue M&Ms. After I’d recorded most of it, I needed to find someone who could play the tune at such a ridiculous speed. Thankfully, Polly managed it with ease.
03. Gower Wassail
5th January 2017
Guests: Ben Burnell, electric bass
‘Wassailing’ was the ancient custom of hanging about an apple orchard on Twelfth Night, making a load of racket to scare away the spirits so the apples would grow back again. And nothing scares spirits away faster than folk music, so they made up loads of wassail songs. The farmer would thank everyone by giving them a spiced cider called wassail, whose name comes from Old English ‘was hál’ meaning ‘good health’.
The tradition later evolved into groups of wassailers carrying a bowl of wassail from door to door offering wealthy people a drink in exchange for food or money, a bit like a Christmassy trick-or-treat. And nothing makes people give you their money to make you go away faster than folk music, so they made up loads more wassail songs.
As with most traditions, wassail songs and customs varied from town to town. This one was from Gower in South Wales. I first heard it from Steeleye Span’s ‘Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again’ (what an album title!) and fell in love with the haunting ability it has to immediately transport you back to some ancient time where the lines between what we know and what we believe were much more blurred.
04. Apples In Winter
12th January 2017
Guests: Danielle Rees, flute
One trouble with folk tunes is that they all have numerous different names and all the names have numerous different tunes. This makes it virtually impossible to know where they’re from, when they’re from and who wrote them. And even if you do know, they get tweaked so many times by so many different people that it’s a sketchy game knowing exactly who is responsible for which bits. To be honest, it’s nothing short of a nightmare, which is why most people just stop thinking about it and play the tune. For your benefit, I have tried to think about it.
There are many tunes called ‘Apples In Winter’ and this particular one is also known by other names (including Úlla Sa Gheimhreadh) but I picked the first name because it links to the theme of this album and I couldn’t pronounce the other one. I also learned that some apple trees bear fruit in winter, which is really cool, don’t you think?
This recording is an example of how I was experimenting with arrangements. The first half was meant to bring out the emotive delicacy of the melody and is performed beautifully by Dani on the flute. The second half was intended to show how the same tune can deliver formidable intensity. On balance, I think I much prefer the first half.
05. In The Month of January / Lavolto
18th January 2017
Guests: Ben Burnell, electric bass, mandolin / Frances Sladen, vocals
When January came around, what better song to choose than… In The Month of January? I learned it from Jon Boden’s ‘A Folk Song A Day’ project (yeah, thanks Jon, now my folk-song-a-week project looks rubbish by comparison...) and just could not get the tune out of my head. All those bends and modal bits make it weirdly catchy and an unexpectedly good song to sing in the shower. You should try it sometime.
I found some chords to fit under the melody, and on guitar it recalled that wistful, hippie sound you’d expect from an early 70s Zeppelin album. I needed an instrumental part to slot in between the verses, and as luck would have it, there was another tune from ‘Music To Make Merrie’ that I’d wanted to use: Lavolto.
Lavolto, or La Volta, was like a renaissance version of the macarena. Our buddy Thoinot Arbeau from earlier was big on his voltas and apparently wrote lots of instructions. He must have been a cheeky chappy, because the dance was considered a bit naughty. ‘Volta’ comes from ‘voltare’ (‘to turn’ in Italian) and the ‘turn’ in question was when the male dancer had to briefly lift up his female partner (filth!) leading King Louis XIII to the unavoidable decision to ban the dance. Disaster narrowly averted, Louis! Très bien!
Ben did a superb job playing La Volta on mandolin, having heard it only once, just before I asked him to play it.
On reflection, my main criticism of this track is that the music doesn’t match the lyrics. They tell the tragic tale of a woman who has been abandoned by her true love and her father and now it seems even the weather is turning on her. Lines like, ‘he’ll kiss you and embrace you ‘til he thinks he has you won, then go away and leave you all for another one’ are packed with such pain and bitter honesty that perhaps a more subdued arrangement would have worked better.
06. Lord Franklin
28th January 2017
A ghost appears to a sailor as he sleeps, and tells him the story of her husband, Lord John Franklin, who went missing in his voyage to discover the Northwest passage. His ship, HMS Terror (now there’s some foreshadowing if ever I heard it…) became stuck in the ice, then sank, leaving his crew to trudge across the icy wasteland, freezing and starving to death, but not before they resorted to cannibalism. Grim diary entries were found, chronicling the real-life horror story along with bodies of sailors preserved in the ice like a spooky vienetta.
Ok, so this one does immediately conjure up images of Howard Moon and Vince Noir defrosting the last words of Biggie Shackleton, but it is a spine-chillingly epic thriller that we’ve been obsessed with since the crew went missing. The Victorians wrote songs about it and in 2018 Ridley Scott did a TV series based on it.
And the best bit? The story isn’t over yet! In 2016, they discovered the wreck of HMS Terror. It is eerily intact, with dining plates still neatly displayed on shelves and all the cabin doors open from when the crew fled… except Lord Franklin’s, which is locked! Shivers…
It’s strange how our perception of time can be so changeable. When I first heard Lord Franklin on old Pentangle and Martin Carthy records, I was listening to music from a bygone era and even all those years ago, Martin and Jacqui were singing a song that was even more ancient to them at the time. Yet when you watch the videos of divers swimming through that pristine shipwreck, the story feels like it could have happened yesterday.
Suddenly, an old story that had become a bit of a legend is suddenly alive again - and thanks to the wonders of technology, we’ll probably get to know the ending. Sometimes it takes an old folk song to remind us it is a very exciting time to be alive.
07. Bear Dance
1st February 2017
Guests: Ben Burnell, acoustic guitar
One summer, a band called Per Kelt came to York to busk in the sunshine outside York Minster. They played what they call ‘speed folk’ involving a hand drum, a guitar, a fiddle and a recorder playing like there’s no tomorrow and they have all the music in the world left to play. Like most of the rapidly growing crowd, I was blown away.
The recorder in particular inspired me to have a go at playing tunes. Tin whistle was my weapon of choice. I didn’t expect to achieve nearly the same standard or speed, but if I could channel even a fraction of their sound, I’d be happy.
Bear Dance was a good starting point - it is nice and easy and a staple in tune sessions. It is as old as the hills to the point it is difficult to know when or where it is from. My brain is telling me it might be Belgian and is probably medieval. Hopefully someone will tell me the full story one day.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and suddenly I’m doing this folk song a week thing. Imagining revellers of old hopping about to Bear Dance at Christmastime made me think it would fit in perfectly with the ancient, cold sound that was developing on Vol. 1 Winter.
At least half the credit for this one goes to Ben, who came up with the guitar part that brought it up-to-date and I had loads of fun whacking huge objects to get that cinematic boom. I played around with the 1972 Hammond T202 I used on Into the Green and got it to make its own quirky imitation of a medieval rauschpfeife. I think that Hammond is partly responsible for the dark, slightly sinister edge this album has. It’s brittle, like frost, and I’d struggle to recreate it if I tried.
08. Boys of Bedlam
7th February 2017
Guests: Ben Burnell, bouzouki, electric bass / Frances Sladen, vocals
Lyrics by Thomas D’Urfey, music by Nic Jones and Dave Moran
This one is based on a real-life horror story that makes Steven King seem about as scary as Peppa Pig. Our tale begins in 1247 with the founding of the priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem: Britain’s first lunatic asylum. Bethlehem became Bethlem, and Bethlem became Bedlam. The word became synonymous with ‘chaos’. What a legacy.
Bedlam’s treatment of its patients was nothing short of torture, involving starving, beating, dunking them in ice-cold baths and spinning them in chairs suspended from the ceiling. Essentially, they were experimenting on the mentally ill and making a pretty penny too. By the 17th century, wealthy tourists flocked to Bedlam to take a stroll around the magnificent grounds and pay admission to see the patients like animals in a zoo.
Many patients died - in fact, they discovered a mass grave beneath the original site - but if they made it out alive, they were unemployable and ended up begging on the streets. And where there’s money, there are scam artists; a Tom of Bedlam was someone who faked that they had been incarcerated to cash in on the pity of the public. Mad Maudlin was his female counterpart, named after the women’s lunatic asylum, The Hospital of St. Mary Magdalen. These recurring characters are the subjects of our song. Mad Maudlin’s Search for her Tom of Bedlam was written by Thomas D’Urfey and was first published in his 1720 book Wit and Mirth, or Pills To Purge Melancholy. I’m not sure how such a grisly song does any of those things!
I first heard Steeleye Span’s definitive version on Please To See The King and mine is like an artistic response, an example of an ongoing thought experiment: if I had been around during the 70s with the same instruments and influences, what might my version have sounded like?
Regardless of how accurately retro it is, this is one of my favourites on Winter. Ben’s bouzouki part is a great earworm and the choral sections sound like they’re ringing through the endless chambers of the world’s most terrifying asylum...
Bethlem Royal Hospital is still open today, but is now a place of healing. But we still have the song, as a gritty reminder of how much progress society has made.
15th February 2017
Lyrics by Emily Brontë, music by Pérotin
It is hard to imagine any fantasy world free from the influences of J.R.R.Tolkien, yet before Gondor, there was Gondal, the imaginary universe dreamed up by the Brontë siblings long before Tolkien was even born. In 1837, a 19-year-old Emily Brontë wrote a poem set in this universe and like her other work, it is dark, gothic and heartbreakingly beautiful.
We hear the internal monologue of a young woman, trapped in hostile weather as night falls. It is not clear if she is physically unable to escape or simply cannot bring herself to go, because something - or someone - binds her to that place. For me, it is a testament to the best of the human character; that sometimes to be selfless is to be self-destructive.
Since being blown to outer space by the singing of Klaus Nomi, aged 15, I never quite made it back from planet Nomi and have been quietly obsessed with countertenor singing ever since. I even took up lessons when in sixth form. Awkwardly, it is a fairly niche artform that can provoke more giggles than appreciation if you’re not careful. But the musical sandbox of the Seasons Project provided a platform for me to cautiously explore the upper octaves and channel my inner Klaus. I took fragments of melody from the ethereal Beata Viscera written by French composer Pérotin (c. 1200) and moulded it to fit the poem.
I’ve ended up with a tribute to sacred polyphonic music, Emily Brontë and Klaus Nomi all in one spooky concoction. It’s about as out there as it gets, but I think it hits that sweet spot between influence and originality.
10. The Snow It Melts The Soonest
22nd February 2017
Guests: Ben Burnell, lead acoustic guitar / Matthew Mefford, double bass
Folk music is full of characters who rise to stardom, then vanish without a trace. Anne Briggs is one of those. Singing styles change as fast as fashion but Anne Briggs’ seems unaffected by all that. Her voice is plain in the best way. It is like she just … sings, without any of the voices that singers (including myself) have fun putting on. Whatever she did worked, because almost begrudgingly, she was the start of a new wave of folk revivalists.
Suddenly, the old songs she sang were magnetic. Since Anne Briggs sang The Snow It Melts The Soonest, EVERYONE else has too. It’s like the Wonderwall of English folk. No-one’s quite sure where the words came from (they’re a bit nasty, to be honest) but we have an unnamed Geordie street singer to thank for the catchy tune.
There he was, signing his heart out to My Love Is Newly Listed, when who should stroll by but Thomas Doubleday, a local politician and soap manufacturer. And he did what any good soap manufacturer would do: set the tune to The Snow It Melts The Soonest and publish it in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1821 under the pseudonym Mr. Shufflebotham.
Since it has been sung to death, I was keen to do something different with it. I could feel another ‘what if this was done in the style of this…?’ experiment coming on. Then, my foot started twitching, and before I knew it, I was up on one leg, Jethro Tull-ing the crap out of it.
Ben played a cheeky acoustic lead part like only he can play and Matt added more than a dash of Pentangle on his upright bass. I reprised the whistle-singing/Hammond combo from God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, and got what I was after this time round. Prog-tastic.
11. The Snow And Frost Are All Over
1st March 2017
Guests: Ben Burnell, electric bass / Jack Woods, electric guitar
I never found out for certain if my tin whistle playing is what made the neighbours move out, but I have a strong suspicion they are related. In many ways, this was the wrong tune, arranged in the wrong way on the wrong instruments for the wrong reasons. It was an experiment, and sometimes you learn… that didn’t work!
It’s an Irish tune and I heard it from the Horslips and Barde, who proved tin whistle tunes were not afraid to take on the 80s in all its neon glory. Both bands played it on whistle, so I thought I’d give it a go too.
However, as the arrangements for the Seasons Project got more and more elaborate, I began to run out of time. When Nathan and I headed into the studio in Middlesbrough to record the drums, there was nothing on this track. Literally nothing. Much to the neighbour’s chagrin, I had been practising the tune day and night, so that was firmly lodged in my brain to give me something to hang onto. So, with delusions of grandeur, I sat behind the drum kit and essentially improvised along to a click-track that we had automated up and down to guide me through the odyssey of sections I was apparently planning this tune to boldly lead us through.
Back home and racing the clock, I got experimental with bells, Hammond organ, electric pianos and a glockenspiel; Ben dutifully played a hasty bassline; and as the neighbours booked their moving van, I tooted the final notes of tin whistle. My chef-d’oeuvre was complete.
I’m sure there are some good ideas in there somewhere, but unfortunately they’re being drowned by all their friends. Sometimes presenting one solid idea clearly is better than throwing in all the good ideas at once. They sort of cancel each other out and people don’t hear what you’re really trying to say.
It’s not all bad, though - the layers of chimes and bells at the start were meant to create an image of the light reflecting off newly-formed frost and I think it works quite well. After the fact, Jack Woods added a mandolin and electric guitars to the rest, which polished up what was - regrettably - a bit of a turd.
So on reflection, this isn’t my favourite track, but it did tell me I’d better get organised for Spring!
12. The Nightingale
8th March 2017
Guests: Ben Burnell, electric bass, electric guitar / Frances Sladen, vocals / Rachel Brown, cellos
Music traditional / lyrics traditional, translated by Richard Chandler Alexander Prior, additional verses by Joshua Burnell
Sorely disappointed by the severe lack of goblins, elves and dragons in the traditional music of the British isles, I went looking for them and found them all hiding in Ancient Danish Ballads Vol. 3, translated by Richard Chandler Alexander Prior in 1860. And they did not disappoint. They’ve got dwarves, shapeshifters, werewolves, mermaids, evil stepmothers and riddle games. I had to keep checking I hadn’t accidentally picked up a Dungeons and Dragons manual and it was wonderful.
The Nightingale stood out as suitably epic, escapist and wintery, although it had about four thousand verses and an obscure, rambling ending. It is surprising how many folk ballads end with, “Oh! Do you know so-and-so? Then it turns out you're my sister! Marvellous! Let’s go and have a party.”
I tweaked lyrics to help it flow better, cut chunks out of it and added a bittersweet ending. I always imagine it like a 60s Disney animation and Rachel Croft created a beautiful painting for it.
The tune was one I was desperate to use as soon as the right song came along. Most people sing it to Willie O Winsbury, which is another classic that nearly every folkie has sung. But like all the best inventions, this one stumbled into the spotlight thanks to a happy accident: Andy Irvine supposedly read the wrong tune in the back of a book. His version with Sweeney’s Men is still one of my favourites, and while we’re at it, listen to Olivia Chaney’s with Offa Rex if you haven’t already.
I’m convinced that melody is as close to magic as mankind will get and was pleased to find a new home for it. It communicates as much heartache as the lyrics, and with Frances’ performance as the Nightingale, Rachel’s one-woman orchestra and Ben’s cathartic improvisation to close, I think this was one heck of a cross-century collaboration to be proud of.
13. To Drive The Cold Winter Away
14th March 2017
Guests: Ben Burnell, electric bass / Greg Palmer and Frances Sladen, vocals
Music traditional / lyrics traditional, additional verse by Joshua Burnell
Imagine how terrifying it used to be when they thought you actually had to do stuff to make the sun come back after winter. This Elizabethan carol (later printed in a broadside around 1625) seems to be a light-hearted sing-song that suggests that bangin’ tunes, banter and booze will see the winter right off. But I couldn’t help but feel the line of each verse was a lingering memory from a time when it was a much more serious and very real concern. It got me thinking: before Christianity pinched Christmas off the pagans, what did they ACTUALLY do to drive the cold winter away?
I got digging, then took the liberty of adding a verse with some lesser known seasonal traditions, including sun-summoning sword dances; Kari, whose cold breath brought into being the Norse Gods of frost and snow; Bride, the goddess of spring who is captured each year, then when set free, literally drives the winter away like a pagan Persephone without the pomegranate; and Berchta.
Now, Berchta is an alpine pagan Goddess and the most terrifying anti-Santa from your worst nightmares. She has various incarnations from different countries and they’re all horrible. She was believed to cherish the souls of children who had died, which on the face of it sounds lovely, but when you find out she rides through the night sky with them all flying behind her, it’s enough to make you cancel Christmas and hide in a stocking until Easter.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the reason for her yearly visit is to check up on your housekeeping. People used to leave her pancakes to eat and she would leave coins if the house was clean - aww, just like leaving cookies for Santa - but if she finds a spec of dust she’ll slit your belly open and fill it with stones. And that’s why they invented vacuum cleaners.
Musically, I got to play around with layering. I tried accordions with Hammond organ, and whistles with reed organ. I liked the second combination under the spooky verses, but the first experiment turned out muddier and less powerful than expected. Still, it was great fun singing with Frances and our pal Greg Palmer.
In hindsight, the extra verses seem a little cryptic and somewhat twee, but if it compels people to delve deeper into the origins of Christmas, I’m happy. You never know, Coca-Cola might even ditch Santa for Berchta. Just imagine the branding, the horrible, horrible branding…