20 December 2016

A Christmas carol, a Christmas song
and a Christmas wish for peace

The Reconciliation monument in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral ... the ‘Coventry Carol’ recalls a mother’s lament for her doomed child (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I suppose some of us are ‘all-caroled out’ while more of us have heard so many Christmas jingles in the background in lifts, restaurants, hotels and shopping centres that we no longer notice what song we are listening to.

My all-time favourite carol is Gaudete, as sung by Steeleye Span, which has regained popularity this year. It seems the most popular Christmas song this year is Merry Xmas Everybody, which was a hit at the same time in the 1970s for the British rock band Slade, from Walsall, Wolverhampton and the West Midlands, and it has returned to a renewed popularity this year.

What has been your favourite carol and your favourite Christmas song so far this season?

So far this year, my favourite carol has been the Coventry Carol, while my favourite Christmas song this season has been ‘Stop the Cavalry,’ written and recorded by Jona Lewie.

The ‘Coventry Carol’ is is traditionally sung a cappella. This is an English traditional carol dating from the 15th or 16th century, and traditionally it was sung in Coventry as the second of three carols in a mystery play, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, performed by the city guilds.

The play depicts the Christmas story from Chapter 2 in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which King Herod orders all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed, and takes the form of a lullaby sung by the mothers of the doomed children.

The music contains a well-known example of a Picardy third. The author is unknown; the oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known setting of the melody dates from 1591, when an attempt was made in Saint Michael’s Parish, Coventry, to revive the play cycle, albeit without success. The surviving pageants were revived in Coventry Cathedral from 1951 onwards.

There are alternative, modern settings of the carol by Kenneth Leighton, Philip Stopford and by Martin Shaw (1875-1985) for Percy Dearmer’s English Carol Book (1913) – the version sung last night [19 December 2016] at the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day,
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee!
And ever mourn and may,
For thy parting neither say nor sing
By, by, lully, lullay.

Coventry Cathedral has been at the heart of peace ministries ever since World War II, and the Ministry of Reconciliation is central to the outreach and mission of Coventry Cathedral. Canon Paul Oestreicher, who has been a Vice-President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) for over 15 years, was a residentiary canon of Coventry Cathedral from 1985 to 1997 and the director of Coventry Cathedral’s Centre for International Reconciliation.

Listening to this carol last night, with its reminder of the slaughter of innocent children at the time of Christ’s birth, was a sober reminder at Christmas time of the dread-filled atmosphere in which children are living in the Middle East today, and the threat all wars pose of slaughtering innocent children en masse.

‘Stop the Cavalry’ by Jona Lewie is an old song at this stage, having reached No 3 in the British singles chart in December 1980. At one point it was only kept from the No 1 and No 2 places by two re-issued songs by John Lennon, who had been murdered on 8 December 1980.

The song’s melody is loosely based on a theme from the Swedish Rhapsody No 1 by Hugo Alfvén, and its major musical elements bear a resemblance to Mozart’s Rondo in D Major, K382.

In an interview with Channel 4, Jona Lewie said that the song was never planned as a Christmas hit, and instead it is a protest song.

The line ‘Wish I was at home for Christmas,’ as well as the brass band arrangements made it an appropriately styled song to play around Christmas time. But the song’s promotional video is set in the trenches during World War I.

The lyrics of the song mention the cavalry and Winston Churchill, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty in the first year of World War I, before serving in the trenches himself.

But the song breaks with the World War I theme with references to nuclear fallout and the lines:

I have had to fight, almost every night,
down throughout these centuries

Lewie has described the soldier in the song as being ‘a bit like the eternal soldier at the Arc de Triomphe.’

When the song was released in December 1980, it was a time of heightened increase in tensions between the West and the Soviet Union. I was then deeply involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) as secretary of Irish CND and a member of the Council of CND in Britain. US-controlled nuclear cruise missiles were being stationed in Britain, and I have clear memories of the fears of a looming nuclear war.

I spoke at protests, rallies and marches throughout Ireland and Britain at the time, helping to organise new branches of CND in cities, towns and villages across these islands. In October 1981, 250,000 people took part in an anti-nuclear march in London, and women’s peace camps were set up at RAF Greenham Common, Berkshire, and RAF Molesworth near Cambridge. On 22 October 1983, when I also spoke at CND’s demonstration on the eve of Cruise missile deployment, it turned out to be one of the largest ever in British history – 300,000 people marched in London as three million protested across Europe.

By 1992, all nuclear-armed Cruise missiles were removed from both Greenham Common and Molesworth, and the plans to develop a neutron bomb had been dropped.

This is the context in which this Christmas anti-war song was written, and this explains the reference to the fallout shelter.

The song, with its blend of anti-war protest and brass band arrangements, has become a perennial Christmas radio standard in these islands, and it is an appropriate reminder of the need to have peace as a priority at Christmas time. The reference to a presidential election is a chilling reminder of how relevant this song is to today’s political circumstances.

Hey, Mr Churchill comes over here
To say we’re doing splendidly
But it’s very cold out here in the snow, Marching to win from the enemy.

Oh I say it’s tough, I have had enough
Can you stop the cavalry?
I have had to fight, almost every night
Down throughout these centuries.

That is when I say, oh yes yet again Can you stop the cavalry?

Mary Bradley waits at home
In the nuclear fall-out zone
Wish I could be dancing now
In the arms of the girl I love

(Dub a dub a dumb dumb)
(Dub a dub dubadum dubadum dub a dub dubadum)

Wish I was at home for Christmas

Bang! That’s another bomb on another town
While Luzar and Jim have tea
If I get home, live to tell the tale
I’ll run for all presidencies.
If I get elected I'll stop, I will stop the cavalry.

(Dub a dub a dumb dumb)
(Dub a dub dubadum dubadum dub a dub dubadum)

Wish I was at home for Christmas

Wish I could be dancing now
In the arms of the girl I love

Mary Bradley waits at home
She has been waiting two years long
Wish I was at home for Christmas.

‘When you are offering your gift at the altar ... first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.’ The Cross of Nails on the altar in the ruins symbolises the Ministry of Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

So nice to see somebody who differentiates between Christmas carols and Christmas songs!! It's getting rarer and rarer.

My favourite song this year is Harry Connick Jr's "When My Heart Finds Christmas" - although it's likely to make me cry.

And for a combo song/carol, you can't go past Bing and Bowie singing the Little Drummer Boy, for the year that's in it.

Merry Christmas, you two.