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While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks /
Sweet Chiming Bells / Hail Chime On

[ Roud 936 , 16898 ; Ballad Index OBC033 ; Bodleian Roud 936 ; words Nahum Tate (1652-1715)]

While Shepherds Watched their Flocks is a Nativity hymn written by Nahum Tate in 1696, with its words entirely based on the Gospel of Luke. It is sung in the South Yorkshire village carols tradition to a lot of different tunes. Versions of this hymn are often named after their tunes, e.g. Winchester Old, Foster, Liverpool, Lyngham, Pentonville, or Sweet Chiming Bells.

Scan Tester played the tune of While Shepherds Watched their Flocks in an August 19, 1964 recording by Reg Hall, which was included in 1990 on his Topic 2 LP anthology I Never Played to Many Posh Dances, and in 2006 on the Free Reed 4CD box set Midwinter.

Bob Hart sang While Shepherds Watched in a home recording made by Bill Leader in 1969. This was included in 2007 on Bob Hart's Musical Tradition anthology A Broadside.

George Dunn sang While Shepherds Were Watching at home at Quarry Bank, Staffordshire, in a recording made by Roy Palmer on June 14, 1971. On the same day he also sang a variant of this song that is sufficiently different from the usual that Steve Roud gave it a number of its own, 16898. Both were included in 2002 on Dunn's Musical Traditions anthology Chainmaker. Bill Leader and Roy Palmer recorded Dunn's Roud 16898 version for a second time on December 4, 1971. This was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology You Lazy Lot of Bone-Shakers (The Voice of the People Volume 16).

Carollers at the Fountain, Ingbirchworth, recorded on December 9, 1973 sang two different versions of While Shepherds Watched on the Leader LP A People's Carol: A Christmas singing tradition recorded in South Yorkshire pubs. The album's booklet commented:

Liverpool is the most popular version of While Shepherds Watched and is another rousing fuguing tune attributed to John Hall. At the Fountain they sing only the first two verses and the last and Cyril's prompting is reminiscent of the practise of “lining out” which was formerly a feature of singing in the chapels before hymn books were available for general use. Here the style of singing is very distinctive for its strong clear harmonies and the exaggerated ralentando which invariably leads to a lush resolution.

and

Foster or Old Foster, as it is known further south, was written by John Foster of High Green House and first published in his second volume of Sacred Music about 1820, where it appears complete with symphony written for eleven parts and set to the 47th psalm. It is interesting to note the unusual form of this rendition of the opening phrase.

The Watersons sang While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks in 1977 on their Topic album Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy. A live version from a December 1980 Christmas radio programme performed at Crathorne Hall, Crathorne, North Yorkshire, was published in 2005 on the CD A Yorkshire Christmas. Waterson:Carthy recorded this carol again in 2006 for their CD Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man. A.L. Lloyd commented in the Watersons' original album's sleeve notes:

The words of this old favourite are by Nahum Tate (1652-1715), a dreadful Poet Laureate, lambasted by Swift and Pope, but a fair hymn-writer on a good day. The well-known tune, called Winchester Old, comes from a psalm book of 1592, but not all country congregations took to it, and here and there Tate's words got sung to less familiar airs. The Watersons got their tune from the good Norfolk singer Walter Pardon. Walter says he can't remember if it came into his family from chapel or Salvation Army.

The Albion Band sang While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks in their 1984-85 Albion Band Christmas Show. This led to their 1985 LP A Christmas Present from The Albion Band and was also included in 1990 on their cassette Songs from the Shows.

Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band sang While Shepherds Watched in 1991 on their CD Carols and Capers and in a live recording from Oxford Town Hall on their CD and DVD An Evening of Carols and Capers.

Kate Rusby sang two variants of While Shepherds Watched on her 2008 CD Sweet Bells. Both variants have additional choruses that gave them their titles: Sweet Chiming Bells and Hail Chime On.

Jon Boden, Jess and Richard Arrowsmith, Gavin Davenport, Fay Hield and Sam Sweeney sang While Shepherds Watched both to the tune Pentonville and in the Sweet Chiming Bells variant at the Royal Hotel in Dungworth as the December 4 and 5, 2010 entries of Jon's project A Folk Song a Day. He sang it alone with his concertina to the tune Lyngham on December 20.

Magpie Lane sang Sweet Chiming Bells at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Dunstan, Woking, on December 7, 2013. This recording was included as the December 20, 2014 entry of Andy Turner's project A Folk Song a Week. Andy Turner also sang While Shepherds Watched as the December 11, 2015 entry of A Folk Song a Week.

This video shows Rosie Hood and friends singing Sweet Chiming Bells at Cecil Sharp House, London, in December 2015:

Lyrics

George Dunn sings While Shepherds Were Watching Their Flocks by the Night

While shepherds were watching their flocks by the night
There came a great noise which gave them a fright.
“Cheer up, faithful shepherds, and be not afraid,
Cheer up, cheer up, cheer up,
Faithful shepherds, and be not afraid.”

'Twas angels a-shouting on that glorious morn,
A-shouting glad tiding: “The saviour is born;
Is borned of a virgin so meek and so mild,
Our lord, our lord, our lord
And redeemer is now born a child.”

I went to behold him, I asked them his name,
His name It was Jesus; from Bethlehem came.
Let every believer his mercy implore,
And praise, and praise, and praise him
Forever till time be no more.

The Watersons sing While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

While shepherds watch their flocks by night
All seated on the ground,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around,
And glory shone around.

“Fear not,” said He (for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled minds,
Had seized their troubled minds),
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind,
To you and all mankind.”

“To you in David's town this day
Is born of David's line,
Is born of David's line
A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord;
And this shall be a sign,
And this shall be a sign.”

“The heav'nly Babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands,
And in a manger laid,
And in a manger laid.”

“All glory be to God on high,
And to the earth be peace,
And to the earth be peace;
Goodwill henceforth from heav'n to men
Begin and never cease,
Begin and never cease.”

Maddy Prior sings While Shepherds Watched

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.

“Fear not”, said he (for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind);
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.

“To you in David's town this day
Is born of David's line
A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord;
And this shall be his sign:

“The heavenly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands,
And in a manger laid.”

Thus spake the seraph; and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus
Addressed their joyful song:

“All glory be to God in high,
And to the earth be peace;
Good-will henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.”

Kate Rusby sings Sweet BellsKate Rusby sings Hail Chime On

While shepherds watch their flocks by night
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around.

While shepherds watch their flocks by night
All seated on, all on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around.

Chorus (after each verse):
Sweet bells, sweet chiming Christmas bells,
Sweet bells, sweet chiming Christmas bells,
They cheer us on our heavenly way,
Sweet chiming bells
Chorus (after each verse):
Hail, chime on, chime on
Merry, merry Christmas bells chime on
Hail, chime on, chime on
Merry, merry Christmas bells chime on

“Fear not,” said He (for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled minds),
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.”

“Fear not,” said He (for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled, troubled minds),
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.”

“To you in David's town this day
Is born of David's line
The Saviour, who is Christ the Lord;
And this shall be the sign.”

“To you in David's town this day
Is born of David's, David's line
The Saviour, who is Christ the Lord;
And this shall be the sign.”

“All glory be to God on high,
And to the earth be peace;
Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.”

“All glory be to God on high,
And to the earth, the earth be peace;
Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.”

(repeat first verse)

Acknowledgements

Transcribed from the singing of the Watersons by Garry Gillard.