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Wassail Song / Gower Wassail

[ Roud 209 ; Ballad Index RcWasSo3 ; Wiltshire 1216 ; trad.]

Phil Tanner recorded Gower Wassail for a 78rpm record in November 1936 in London (matrix CA16053-1; Columbia FB1569). He lived on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales where most of the people had originally come from Somerset in England. Many very old songs survived there because of the isolation of the community, similar in a way to the Appalachian music. Phil Tanner's recording has been included in 1955 and 1998 on the Alan Lomax Collection album World Library of Folk and Primitive Music: England, on You Lazy Lot of Bone Shakers: Songs & Dance Tunes of Seasonal Events (The Voice of the People Series, Vol. 16, Topic 1998), and as the first track of the Free Reed anthology Midwinter. Both this and a BBC recording made on May 20, 1949 at Penmaen were included in 1968 on his eponymous EFDSS album, Phil Tanner, and in 2003 on his Veteran anthology CD The Gower Nightingale.

The Watersons with Mike Waterson in lead sang this song as Wassail Song on their 1965 LP Frost and Fire. This recording was also included on the Topic CD sampler The Season Round. A live version from a Christmas radio programme recorded in December 1980 at Crathorne Hall, Crathorne, North Yorkshire, was published in 2005 on the CD A Yorkshire Christmas. And Lal, Mike, Norma and Rachel Waterson, and Martin Carthy sang this live at Wisconsin University, Madison, USA, on November 18, 1988 for Wisconsin Public Radio's programme Simply Folk. This track was published as Gower Wassail in 2004 on the on the Watersons' 4CD anthology of 2004, Mighty River of Song.

A.L. Lloyd commented in the Watersons's original album's sleeve notes:

We end as we begin with a wassail song, sung from house to house at mid-winter, for luck. The wassailers, perhaps five or six of them, carried a wooden bowl decorated with holly and ivy. in which to collect money or bread and cheese or beer, in return for the good luck wishes conveyed by their song. Sometimes they carried a be-ribboned elder bough as an emblem of their standing as luck-bringers. Many wassail songs indicate that in the past the reception of the luck-visitors was a ceremonious affair, with the person who gave them entry dressed in her best, wearing a silver pin or carrying a golden mace. The version here, led by Michael Waterson, is one familiar in the West country and extending into the Gower Peninsula of Wales. It was one of the favourite tunes of the fine old Gower singer, Phil Tanner.

Shirley Collins sang the Gower Wassail in 1969 on her and her sister Dolly's album Anthems in Eden. This track was also included in their anthology Within Sound whose title, by the way, is from the lyrics of this song. Shirley Collins also recorded the Wassail Song with the Albion Dance Band in 1971, singing chorus and the last verse; the other verses were sung by John Tams. However, the recording sessions were shelved and it took until 1977 for the LP The Prospect Before Us to be released.

Steeleye Span sang Gower Wassail in 1971 on their third album, Ten Man Mop or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again, and about 25 years later on their live double CD The Journey. The original album's cryptic sleeve notes commented:

Head up for power … a viol, a serpent and a big brass drum … a bowl, a bough and a puff of frozen breath … Phil Tanner, a stick and a pooch … a Telecaster, a Mustang and a Boosey & Hawkes tabor.

Kerfuffle sang Gower Wassail in 2009 on their Midwinter album Lighten the Dark.

The New Scorpion Band sang the Gower Wassail in 2011 on their CD Nowell Sing We. They noted:

We know this splendid wassail thanks to the recording made of Phil Tanner by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. In South Wales, as in some parts of Cornwall, the custom had a processional element that involved visiting friends and neighbours in the period just after Christmas, inviting them to drink from the wassail bowl and accept good wishes in exchange for a small gift. The toast “Was Hail” or good health, is a remnant from Anglo Saxon.

Andy Turner sang the Gower Wassail as the December 29, 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week. He commented on the provenance of his verses:

I first learned the song from the Steeleye Span album Ten Man Mop with reference at some point to the version printed in A.L.Lloyd’s Folk Song in England. The words of most folk revival performances (mine included) appear to derive from the verses given in Lloyd’s book, which he introduces—with typical sleight of hand—thus:

roistering carols of wassailing still survive as happy reminders of the luck perambulations of unchristian ceremony, with such melodies as the one recorded from grand old Phil Tanner before he died in a Gower workhouse in 1947, and with verses like the following.

The key word here is ‘like’, as the verses he prints are not necessarily those sung by Phil Tanner! (the sentence is doubly misleading since Phil Tanner actually died in 1950, not 1947). The Mudcat thread [Origins: The Gower Wassail] provides Tanner’s words, and those of other versions of the song collected in Gower in 1928 and 1884. It is only comparatively recently that I actually got to hear any recordings of Phil Tanner, and it’s too late to consider relearning the words I’ve been singing for more than 30 years.

The English Acoustic Collective sang Wassail in 2018 on their album Christmas Champions.

Lyrics

Phil Tanner sings Gower Wassail The Watersons sing the Wassail Song

A-wassail, a-wassail throughout all this town,
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our wassail is made of good ale and cake,
Some nutmeg and ginger, it's the best we could get.

A-wassail, a-wassail throughout our town,
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our wassail is made of the good ale and true,
Some nutmeg and ginger, it's the best we can brew.

Chorus (after each verse):
Fol-dee-dol, lol-dee-dol-dee-dol,
Lol-dee-dol-dee-dol, lol-dee-dol-dee-dee,
Fol-dee-derol, lol-dee-der-dee,
Sing too-ra-li-doh.

Chorus (after each verse):
Fol-dee-dol, fol-dee-dol-dee-dol,
Fol-dee-dol-dee-dol, fol-dee-dol-dee-dee,
Fol-dee-derol, fol-dee-der-dee,
Sing too-ra-li-doh.

Our wassail is made of an el'berry bough,
Although, my good neighbour, we'll drink unto thou,
Besides all on earth, we have apples in store,
Pray let us come in, for 'tis cold by the door.

Our wassail is made of the elderberry bough,
And so my good neighbours, we'll drink unto thou,
Besides all on earth, you'll have apples in store,
Pray let us come in for it's cold by the door.

There's a master and a mistress sitting down by the fire
While we poor wassail boys do wait in the mire.
And you pretty maid with your silver-headed pin,
Please open the door and let us come in.

We know by the moon that we are not too soon,
And we know by the sky that we are not too high.
We know by the stars that we are not too far,
And we know by the ground that we are within sound.

We know by the moon that we are not too soon,
And we know by the sky that we are not too high.
We know by the stars that we are not too far,
And we know by the ground that we are within sound.

Now, master and mistress, thanks to you we'll give,
And for our jolly wassail as long as we live.
And if we should live till another New Year,
Perhaps we may call and see who do live here.

There's our wassail boys growing weary and cold,
Drop a bit of small silver into our old bowl,
And if we're alive for another New Year,
Perhaps we may call and see who do live here.

Shirley Collins sings Gower Wassail Steeleye Span sing Gower Wassail

A-wassail, a-wassail throughout all this town,
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our wassail is made of the good ale and cake,
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best we can get.

A-wassail, a-wassail throughout all the town,
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our wassail is made of the good ale and cake,
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best we could bake.

Chorus (after each verse):
Lol-dee-dol, lol-dee-dol-dee-dol,
Lol-dee-dol-dee-dol, lol-dee-dol-dee-dee,
Fol-dee-derol, lol-dee-der-dee,
Sing too-ra-li-doh.

Chorus (after each verse):
Fol-dee-dol, dol-dee-dol,
Dol-dee-dol, dol-dee-del,
Fol-dee-derol, lol-dee-der-dee,
Sing too-ra-li-doh.

Our wassail is made of the elderberry bough,
And so my good neighbour, we'll drink unto thou,
Besides all on earth, we have apples in store,
Pray do let us come in for it's cold at the door.

Our wassail is made of the elderberry bough,
And so my good neighbours, we'll drink unto thou,
Besides all on earth, you have apples in store,
Pray, let us come in for it's cold by the door.

We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear
So that we may have cider when we call next year.
And where you have one barrel we hope you'll have ten
So that we may have cider when we call again.

There's a master and a mistress sitting down by the fire
While we poor wassail boys stand here in the mire.
Come you pretty maid with your silver-headed pin,
Pray, open the door and let us come in.

It's we poor wassail boys so weary and cold,
Please drop some small silver into our bowl,
And if we survive for another New Year,
Perhaps we may call and see who does live here.

We know by the sky that we are not too high,
And we know by the moon that we are not too soon.
We know by the stars that we are not too far,
And we know by the ground that we are within sound.

We know by the moon that we are not too soon,
And we know by the sky that we are not too high,
And we know by the stars that we are not too far,
And we know by the ground that we are within sound.

Now master and mistress here's a health to you we give,
And pour our jolly wassail as long as we live.
And if we do live till another New Year,
Then perhaps we may call and see who do live here.

Acknowledgements and Links

Garry Gillard transcribed the Wassail Song from the singing of the Watersons.

See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: The Gower Wassail.