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
"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
"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
Vincentian Center of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Mapleton and College
Plainsboro, 609-799-0944. $15 at the door. Saturday, December 1,
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