The Best Christmas Carols You’ve Never Heard

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Dec. 16 2014 9:27 AM

The Best Christmas Carols You’ve Never Heard

Nowell Sing We Clear will make you think differently about Christmas.

Nowell Sing We Clear
Nowell Sing We Clear celebrates an older, and perhaps more pagan, Christmas as it was known for centuries in Britain and North America.

Photo by Deb Lazar

It seems like everyone—well, everyone except the maniacs who listen to Christmas music year-round—is sick of the same old holiday songs coming out of the radio. (Yes, we do hear what you hear!) In 2013, L.V. Anderson wrote about Nowell Sing We Clear, a vocal group that takes us back to a time when caroling, caroling through the snow was a real thing, and not just a lyric. Her article is reprinted below.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

The first thing you notice about Nowell Sing We Clear, the most underrated Christmas caroling group in the country, is that these guys can really sing. Tony Barrand, the lead tenor of the all-male folk quartet, has a voice that’s bright and buttery, and elocution that makes you feel like he’s telling you an exciting story in front of a fireplace in a cozy English pub while you sip a hot alcoholic beverage. John Roberts, another Englishman, contributes a rich baritone that’s at turns gruff, gravelly, and reedy. When Fred Breunig’s and Andy Davis’ strong, accurate voices come in for a four-part harmony, you’re liable to get chills up your spine.

The second thing you notice about Nowell Sing We Clear is that you don’t recognize any of their carols. These guys don’t sing about Christmastime in the city, chestnut roasting, or even angels sweetly singing o’er the plains. They sing about gargantuan rams and talking birds. They sing about the birth of Jesus, sure, but you won’t remember the stories they tell from the Bible. They sing a lot about wassailing—I count eight songs that contain the word “wassail” in their title among the group’s six Christmas albums—but even their version of “Here We Come A-Wassailing” has a different tune and slightly different lyrics from the familiar version. They have a few other disorientingly unconventional arrangements of familiar songs, but most of their oeuvre is strange and alien to the contemporary American listener.

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This in itself is one reason Nowell Sing We Clear is worth listening to—their unrecognizable music is a refreshing change of pace from the loop of “Silver Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” that plays nonstop in all public places from early November through late December. But Nowell Sing We Clear’s appeal goes deeper than their novelty. Their tunes—most of which are American or English folk songs passed down over generations until they were finally written down in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—are poignant reminders of just how weird the Christmas story really is and why we need Christmas anyway.

Barrand and Roberts met as grad students at Cornell in 1968 and started performing as Nowell Sing We Clear with Breunig and another musician named Steve Woodruff a few years later. (Davis replaced Woodruff in the early ’80s.) They’ve been touring, recording, and discovering new old carols ever since. (The group gets its name from a line in a William Morris carol.) Their live shows are broken into two parts. In the first half, the quartet sing songs about the Christmas story: Jesus’ birth, the star, the shepherds, the three wise men, King Herod, etc. In the second half, they sing about secular wintertime customs: visiting neighbors, singing, feasting, and drinking. Some songs combine secular and religious themes, just as our contemporary Christmas traditions do.

My favorite Nowell Sing We Clear carols are vaguely religious, which may seem odd: I was raised Lutheran but haven’t regularly attended church in years, and I don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus or in any of the fantastical stories of the New Testament. But Nowell Sing We Clear’s songs about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus aren’t all drawn from the New Testament—many of them come from Christian apocrypha, the texts that didn’t make it into the Bible canon but survived as folk tales.

Take, for instance, “The Cherry Tree Carol.” Nowell Sing We Clear have recorded several versions of it; like many folk songs, it morphed, taking on new lyrics and adapting to new melodies, over the centuries. The carol takes place when Mary is pregnant with Jesus. She’s taking a walk through a cherry orchard with Joseph, and she decides this is a good time to tell him that she’s pregnant. She couches this information in a request for Joseph to pick some cherries for her. Joseph is angry to hear that his wife is pregnant with someone else’s child, and he snaps, “Let the father of the baby pick cherries for thee.” Fetal Jesus, hearing this gibe, uses his powers to order the cherry trees to bend down to Mary, so that she can pick them herself. Joseph is chastened by this supernatural display and makes up with Mary. Here’s one of the prettiest arrangements of the song from Nowell Sing We Four:

What I love about this carol is how it portrays Joseph and Mary, characters who always seemed unrelatable and weirdly accepting of their strange fate when I heard about them in church growing up. Mary’s fear when she tells Joseph that she’s expecting and Joseph’s resulting rage are understandable emotions, and hearing this carol, you empathize with both of them. Add the spookiness of Jesus issuing commands from within his mother’s uterus, and you suddenly get how very strange the idea of God-made-flesh really is—how terrifying it would be to be pregnant with a deity who can defy laws of physics before he’s even viable. The carol simultaneously calls attention to the bizarre nature of the Christmas story—a story that most Christians have heard so many times that they often take it for granted—and humanizes characters who can seem two-dimensional when you read about them in the Bible.

Another outstanding Apocryphal ballad sung by Nowell Sing We Clear is called “The Bitter Withy”; it too breathes new life into familiar Bible characters. This song takes place while Jesus is a little boy—a period notably absent from the New Testament. He asks Mary if he can go out and play, and she tells him to get out of her hair already. Jesus comes across three rich boys, who make fun of him for being born in a stable. In response, Jesus uses magic powers to build “a bridge with the beams of the sun” across a nearby stream and runs across it. The three rich boys try to run after him, and, being mere mortals, they drown. When Mary finds out what happened, she spanks Jesus with a willow bough—and Jesus curses willow trees, forever more, to rot from the inside-out when they die. Listen to the disarmingly jaunty version from The Best of Nowell Sing We Clear:

There’s a lot to unpack here: the idea of Jesus as a child murderer, the glimpse of Mary as a harried stay-at-home mom at the end of her rope, the proletarian fantasy of a poor boy getting revenge on the well-to-do. I asked Barrand, now a professor emeritus at Boston University, for his take on it. He said, “I think one of the things that the English working people loved that story for was the notion that Jesus may have been born the Son of God, but he still had to learn. He still had to be a child and make mistakes and abuse his power.” A story that shows Jesus as a regular impulsive, proud kid—someone who wasn’t perfect, and who might actually have felt ugly, uncomfortable feelings—makes me identify with Jesus a lot more than I ever did in confirmation class.

Most of Nowell Sing We Clear’s carols don’t subvert familiar Bible stories—but they do give you fresh ways of thinking about Christmas. Before Black Friday was a quasi-holiday, before music producers wrote original pop Christmas songs (which Barrand calls “fairly insipid”), before Santa had become closely associated with a Coca-Cola marketing image, Christmas was, at least in part, about getting together with other people and singing funny, strange, and entertaining songs to pass the time. Nowell Sing We Clear continues this tradition and makes me wish it were still more common.

I confess that I have a tendency to romanticize pre-20th-century Christmas traditions, and this tendency no doubt contributes to my love of Nowell Sing We Clear’s weird old carols. But it’s not their old-fashionedness that makes Nowell Sing We Clear so great. It’s that their songs are about the feeling of community that compels people—even infidels like me—to keep celebrating this crazy holiday, year after year and century after century. “The dark and the winter can be very difficult,” says Barrand, “so pulling together and getting support from your neighbors is a very important piece of why people visit and celebrate and feast and do drinking and gathering together—and, sometimes, singing, at this time of year.”

Some of Nowell Sing We Clear’s songs are even self-referentially about the need to gather with others in winter. I’ll leave you with one of them (but not before I urge you to buy their albums and, if you live on the East Coast, seek out their performances). The accordion-heavy “Rise Up Jock” has nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with why we still celebrate his birthday. The chorus urges the listener to “sing your song,”

For the summer is short and the winter long.
Let’s all join hands and form a chain
‘Til the leaves of springtime bloom again.
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