Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the November 28,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Nowell Sing We at the Midwinter Holidays

For 11 months of the year folklorists John Roberts,

a full-time musician, and Tony Barrand, a maverick academic, bring

spirited English folklore to audiences in the United States, Canada,

and their native England.

"Roberts plays the instruments, I do the talking," says


in a telephone interview from his home in Brattleboro, Vermont.


lives in Schenectady, two hours away. In December, the two focus on

Christmas and the winter solstice, double their ranks, and take on

the seasonal name "Nowell Sing We Clear." The name is taken

from a line in one of the songs in their repertoire. The Princeton

Folk Music Society sponsors a special "Nowell" performance

in the chapel of the Vincentian Center at St. Joseph’s Seminary on

Saturday, December 1, at 8 p.m. The fifth "Nowell" CD album

is due to be released within days.

Fred Breunig and Andy Davis, both active in the New England


movement, join the Roberts-Barrand duo for the December performances.

"We all met through dancing," says Barrand. "We wanted

to put the dance back in Christmas. The word carol originally meant

dance tune. The French carole is a group dance, usually in

a circle. Participants sing as they dance holding belts, or hands

or shoulders."

"Nowell" performances these days consist solely of music.

Matter of fact, Barrand says, "I have MS now. I have to get around

on a scooter. It’s dancy music, but we’ve cut the dancing out of the

shows because of my MS. There are lots of refrains for the audience

to join in."

The performances of "Nowell Sing We Clear" present two themes,

Barrand explains. The first half of the show deals with the familiar

New Testament Christmas story. The second half uses songs, customs,

and dances that mark the period from the winter solstice through the

turn of the year.

"Those folk celebrations," says Barrand, "are the reason

Christmas is when it is. They go back to the Roman Saturnalia, a


of light in the Roman Empire. They have nothing to do with the birth

of Jesus. They’re about the solstice, the turn of the year,


for the winter, and building community to get through the dark time

of the winter. The old Saturnalia, had a piece of Advent in it, and

ended at Twelfth Night. People were used to partying on December 25,

so they continued to use that date."

Anticipating resistance to the show, the Princeton Folk Music Society

says, "If you think you might not enjoy this presentation because

it is incompatible with your religious persuasion, you are making

a mistake. This is not a religious event."

Elements of Christianity found their way into some of the folk


Barrand says. "The carols that we use never get into


he adds. "They tell unusual versions of the birth of Jesus.

As an example he retells the Cherry Tree carol: "Joseph and Mary

get married. Mary is pregnant. Joseph doesn’t know by whom. They walk

in a cherry orchard. Mary has a craving for cherries and asks Joseph

to pick a few. Joseph refuses, saying, `Let the father of the baby

pick them.’ Jesus, still unborn, makes the cherry tree bend down so

Mary can reach the cherries."

Barrand has led the way to performing and recording spring and harvest

festivals, but no longer organizes them. He explains that spring and

harvest carol programs are hard to book because their time-frames

are relatively diffuse. "Spring begins on February 2," he

says. "It’s bad luck if you don’t take down your Christmas


by then. It continues through Memorial Day. That’s seven weeks. In

folk traditions it’s a celebratory time. We recorded it and stopped

doing it. It’s a long time. It’s the same for Harvest celebrations,

whereas Christmas has its obvious right moment."

Barrand was born in 1945 and grew up in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire,

England, where his father was a machinist. His upbringing, he says

was in "two very musical Protestant church traditions:" the

Salvation Army and the Methodist church. The men, including his


played brass instruments in Salvation Army bands. An aunt, who was

a captain in the Salvation Army, conducted services and played the

concertina, an accordion-like instrument. "It was an energetic

form of music," Barrand says. After the family moved south to

Bletchley, near London, the family attended the Methodist church.

"The English Methodists are vigorous singers."

But folk song was beyond his horizons until he attended

Swarthmore College on an exchange program. "I was really


he told Keith Fotheringham of Sing Out magazine. "Here I was a

sort of working class English kid and I didn’t know English folk


He quickly rectified the situation and sang with a folk trio at


After finishing his undergraduate work in England, Barrand returned

to the United States for graduate work in psychology at Cornell. About

a month after arriving, and meeting John Roberts, also an English-born

Cornell graduate student in psychology, the two began performing.

Their academic interest, perception psychology, interlocked with their

interest in performance. Barrand sums up the Barrand-Roberts academic

field. "It has to do with perception and the arts. Why, when you

look at a painting or hear a ballad, do you get the feeling or emotion

that you do? What I do academically is a mixture of anthropology and

psychology, really."

"The main center of my research is dance," Barrand says.


current project is digitizing my field work — 26 years worth of

film and video, mostly Morris and sword dancing — with a view

to putting it up on the Web in streaming video." Barrand estimates

that he has about 350 hours of film to deal with. I have trained


who can do part of it," he says, "but the indexing and cataloging

can’t be delegated."

Morris dancing and sword dancing, he explains are seasonal dance


"They’re performances, as opposed to social dance, done by a


group, unlike carols. They’re very vigorous and tend to be done by

young men. The best known form comes in the spring and has a lot of


Shape-note singing is another interest of Barrand’s. Shape note


Barrand explains, is an American system of musical notation where

noteheads are given particular shapes to correspond to particular

pitches. It was devised by itinerant New England singing master in

the late 18th century. Promoted by clergymen interested in improving

the quality of singing in their congregations, it evolved into a


activity. Recently new interest in shape-note singing has developed.

Yet another of Barrand’s interests is Lancashire mill culture. "I

knew clog dancing from Lancashire," he says. Workers wore wooden

clogs to keep out of the water used in the dye rooms and the mills.

The clogs make noise, and clog dances imitate the noise of the looms.

It is thought to be uniquely English."

In 1988 Barrand met Anna Marley, who lived in Rockville,

Connecticut, where Lancashire immigrants had founded many mills.


was in her 70s," Barrand says, "and did a style of dancing

very similar to what I had learned. She did it with her sisters, and

her niece. The whole family taught clog dancing."

For 12 years Barrand visited Marley and filmed her teaching. She


him 12 routines. He is now working on book about her, her family,

and clog dancing in America.

Barrand currently teaches through the University Professors at Boston

University. He describes the institution as an "independently

accredited college within B.U. It’s an opportunity for students and

faculty to create innovative ways for developing education and career

patterns." The curriculum basically consists of independent study

that cuts across conventional departmental lines. Students can devise

their own major. "I was invited to join because of my career,"

Barrand says. "I started out in psychology, then I added


and then applying aesthetics to the things I know how to do —

song and dance. There’s a need to understand the culture from which

the song and dance emerged."

"The wonderful thing about this job that I have at B.U. is that

I don’t have to separate myself out from being an academic and a


My chosen audience is really practitioners — dancers and singer

— rather than academics. It’s the only academic job at this point

that I could tolerate because I don’t really like other academics

all that much."

In our phone conversation Barrand confirms his distrust of academics.

"I’m really a doer, I study things I can do. A lot of times


study things, and are not doers of them. It’s a bit of a cheat. One

needs to know how the things that you study fit into people’s


Barrand foregoes thinking about how to talk to academics in favor

of how to communicate through music and dance. "The job of the

musician is to make the dance audible," he says, "and the

job of the dancer is to make the music visible. They’ve got to blend


— Elaine Strauss

Nowell Sing We Clear, Princeton Folk Music Society,

Vincentian Center of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Mapleton and College


Plainsboro, 609-799-0944. $15 at the door. Saturday, December 1,

8 p.m.

Previous Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments