Sunday, January 29, 2012





Boff changed the words of Voices, That's All from "from the Albion Taproom to California" to "from the Bristol Folk House to California". A small thing, but a lovely thing. He's a showman, you see. He knows how to make a connection with his audience. What Chumbawamba are, and I suspect what they've always been, are a political cabaret act. Anarchists they may be, but each gig is beautifully planned. Coming onto the stage and opening the second half with musically and lyrically grim Homophobia, and winding up the encore with the poignant farewell song Bella Ciao; perfection. There is no sense that you are being preached at or harangued but every song has some point. Everything they do has some point. They walked onto the stage at Glastonbury wearing "Bono, Pay Your Tax" tee shirts. I have mentioned that before. That was quite a big thing, actually.

Martin Carthy

Sir Patrick Spens. Sovay, with David Swarbrick, twice. Famous Flower of Serving Men, all of it. Three Jovial Welshman (“why does that always get a laugh”), with Chris Wood. That version of My Son John re-located to Iraq. The Treadmill Song. The Trees They Do Grow. No different on stage in a classical venue (St Georges); three miles from the audience (Scarborough); or three feet from the audience (Camden). I may have mocked Green Note cafe, but honestly, sitting this close to the stage, knowing that only 50 people will ever hear this particular performance of this particular song? Does Martin Carthy know he’s a legend? Or does he just think of himself as a man who sings songs?

Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair has been described as "jaw dropping", "gob-smacking" and "Scottish" (by me) and as "like some coat hangers who've clubbed together and bought a guitar" (by Bristols Top Citizen Folk Journalist). He says that his songs have a cosmological bent, and thinks nothing of rhyming "heroes" with "thanatos and eros". I was so blown away by his Bath gig that I went to Camden specially to hear him again (have I mentioned the Green Note cafe?) and had to travel back on a 5AM train to go to work. Some cosmic force arranged for him to do another one at the Cube, supported by that film about wierd English folk customs. It's hard to choose between his weird rambling philosophical odes and his witheringly authentic takes on traditional songs. He makes Barbary Allen seem like a new and heartbreaking piece of news you haven't heard before, and, I swear, literally reduced the audience to stunned silence when Bonnie Suzie Cleland was burned in Dundee. His weird unaccompanied version of the Cruel Mother, with a refrain that wandered in from somewhere else but somehow seems to fit, is like nothing else on earth.

You remember how Francis Spufford said that he only read other books because he couldn't always be re-reading the Narnia series? (You do, because I've quoted him here repeatedly. Neil Gaiman said the same thing, irrelevantly.). Well, some days that's just how the judge feels about Martin Carthy and other musical acts.

Saturday, January 28, 2012



Chris Wood 
at Colston Hall, Bristol, Oct 21

Chris Wood is always amazing, but this is the best I've ever heard him, which is to say, about as good as the "one man with a guitar singing ballads" genre ever gets. He praised the acoustics of the room and the sound engineer, and was more than usually under-stated, nuanced, a conversation between guitar and audience. Assume I'd made all the usual remarks about the English not valuing their national treasures. 

Show of Hands 
at Bristol Folk Festival, April 30

I don't like everything Steve Knightley does. Or perhaps it would be more honest to say that the thing which Steve Knightley does doesn't come off every time I see him do it. This time it did. It was Day 2 of Bristol folk festival and local resentment against the seventeenth or eighteenth branch of Tesco being plonked on Stokes Croft had just boiled over into a full scale riot, about half a mile from the stage, and not one single artist had even mentioned it, or seemed to be aware that Bristol was in the news. So Steve Knightley stepped onto the stage and launched straight into "to the cutthroats, crooks and conmen running this gaol: is there anything left in England that's not for sale?" and "I hope some day we'll all be freed from your arrogance, your ignorance, and greed" and "Agri-barons, C.A.P in hand strip this green and pleasant land...." He is, in a way, a demagogue, a revivalist preacher without any single cause, and on this occasion he judged the mood of the hall, he took it into himself, he channelled it back at us.... And then went to the Silent Disco and danced along with Remember Your A Womble. A bona fide folk-god.

Blackbeards Tea Party 
at the Croft Bristol, Nov 26

Stuart Giddens (now positively identified as one of the two morrismen who performed what we all now know are traditional Morris double jigs with the Demon Barber Roadshow at Scarborough) has replaced Paul Young as singer in the band, and added a camp wildness, an awful lot of jumping, but probably not that much subtlety to the act, cranking the live show a notch or two above either of the records. It appeared that a lot of people who had really come for the rocky punky music that the Croft is more famous for drifted into the back room for the Tea Party and stayed until the end. There was singing along; there was dancing; there was jumping in the air...and there was a sense that Blackbeard's Tea Party had just gone from being a really very good busking and celidah outfit to being a major musical force.

Back in May, the judge said that the Show of Hands show was the best live gig he'd ever seen, and he isn't going to go back on that now. But he's never seen anything quite like Blackbeard Tea Party either. Obviously, one can't blame the apple for not being as orangey as the orange or or the orange for not being as apply as the apple. So for the first time in their history the 2011 Monty will be awarded jointly to Show of Hands and Blackbeards Tea Party. Fortunately, since it is an imaginary award, there is no problem imagining it being in two places at once, like that puzzle involving an imaginary duck in an imaginary bottle. 

Friday, January 27, 2012



The award goes to Jon Boden, for being the only person to have recorded a new folksong every day for 365 days. Some of them deserved to be consigned to oblivious (I am looking at YOU, Big Rock Candy Mountains, and YOU King of Rome) but many of them ( Four Angels, O'Hamlet) were worth repeated listens, and he introduced me to lots of cool songs (e.g The Mistletoe Bough, A Chat With Your Mother) which I didn't know, which was presumably the point of the excercise. 


Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts 
for Joe Peel at Bristol Folk Festival

Steve Knightley, Fisherman's Friends and the entire company, but this time chiefly yourselves, 
for Cousin Jack, also at Bristol Folk Festival

Chris Wood 
for Hard, Jersualem, and Hollow Point (duh!) at Colston Hall, 21 Oct 2011

That miserable bastard Chris Wood.


Chris Ricketts 
for Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage (on Port of Escape)

Blackbeards Tea Party 
for Stan Rogers' Barret's Privateers (on Tomorrow We'll Be Sober)

Jon Boden 
for Stan Rogers' Loch Keeper (on a Folksong A Day)

Stan Rogers for Stan Rogers' Mary Ellen Carter, which, in a rare show of unanimity, the readers of this blog voted "single best song ever written by anyone about anything ever".


* Lustily and tuneless singing along with Fishemen's Friends singing Cousin Jack in the mud at the Pyramd Stage at Glastonbury, and noticing that Steve Knightley was standing next to him

* Standing on York station, desperately hoping that the old gentleman with the guitar case to whom he has just said "We really enjoyed your set, sir, such a shame you were so far from the audience" really had been Martin Carthy. (Or if, indeed, he had dreamt the whole incident.)

* Hearing the astonishing Emily Portman singing wonderful mysterious whispy ethereal fairy tale ballads in the upstairs room of the Louisiana Bristol, and realising that the audience consisted of eleven people, including the judge, Bristol's Leading Citizen Folk Journalist, Peter Lord and Jim Moray. 

* The aforemetnioned Martin Carthy singing Bob Dylan's Dream on the Radio 2 tribute programme. (Bob Dylan having originally based the song on Martin Carthy's version of Lord Franklin's Lament.)

* Hearing The Pentangle doing a set consisting entirely of traddy classics at Glastonbury, unaware that this was the last but one performance Bert Jansch would give.

No award. You can't give an award for something sad.


Phil Beer 
for Seven Curses at Bristol Folk Festival 

June Tabor and the Oyster Band 
for Seven Curses at St Georges Hall Bristol, Nov 1

Martin Simpson 
for North Country Blues at Chapel Arts, Bath, Oct 22

Ralph McTell 
for Girl from the Noth Country at St Georges, Bristol, 29 Sep

Bob Dylan 
for Man in the Long Black Coat at Cardiff Arena, Oct 13


Martin Simpson.

It's shame Dylan didn't sing Seven Curses, so I could have had an award for "the best live performance of Dylan's Seven Curses."


The judge unanimously gave the award to Bob Dylan's show in Cardiff Arena.

The first night of an opera is generally judged a failure unless a sizable proportion of the audience boo; similarly, the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll wouldn't have done a show unless some people claimed to have walked out of it. It is widely believed that Bob's promoters fill the back rows with an anti-claque who are only there so they can leave after the opening number. 

It must be admitted that, in order to understand Dylan's current approach to his muse (a.k.a "whatever the hell it is he thinks he's doing nowadays") you need to 

a: have heard at least three albums since MTV Unplugged

b: Be reasonably familiar with his lessor known material (NOTE: Knowing some of the words to Like a Rolling Stone doesn't count) 

c: Be sitting or standing in the front five rows. 

If you fulfil all those criteria, than you will be treated to a Robert Zimmerman becoming in his autumn years the artist I am convinced he has always wanted to be – the bluesy, rock-a-billy song and dance man, grinning and mincing and riffing and colluding with the audience. 

In short: this was the gig I am most likely to tell my non-existent grandchildren about.

"But Andrew, would you have praised this very strange show so highly if you had never heard of Bob Dylan?"

"If I had never heard of Bob Dylan then I would never have heard any of Bob Dylan's songs. Under those circumstances, if this grizzled old man in a sweaty cowboy hat had snarled into a small venue and started growling, I would have said 'What marvellous songs...get me a pen and paper, these may be the greatest lyrics that have ever been written...what fantastic tunes...what a weird-arse way of singing them." 

Which is precisely what everyone has been saying about Dylan since approximately 1959 


The Canteen, Stokes Croft
The Canteen, a sort of perfectly legal squat in a disused open plan office, is allegedly the creative hub of the coolest, most creative street in England, or, if you believe the Bristol Evening Post, the place where crusty hippy commies hang out who ought to get a job and be forced to eat Tescos sandwiches and Banksy ought to be flogged like they did to that kid who painted graffiti on Singapore. I digress. One of the Canteens U.S.Ps, apart from real ale and very decent food at very reasonable prices (you get a free bowl of soup with a meal, which is a really civilised touch) is live music -- I've heard both the aforementioned Pilgrims' Way and the not yet mentioned Hoddamadoddery there. 

Well, "heard" is a slight overstatement: it's a bar. People are right up near the stage trying to finish designing their websites on the Macbooks, or with their course work on Brecht spread out in front of them; or else they are drinking and trying to have a conversation with their mates, wondering when the distracting noise at the front is going to stop. This probably works very well with that loud electrical rhythm stuff that the young people allegedly like but which no-one actually wants to listen to in the first place, but it's really not the environment in which to hear Pilgrims' Way telling you about the hand weaver who fell in love with the factory maid. Not sure what the solution is. Shame.

Scarborough Open Air Theatre

Plastic, football stadium style seating. Numbered seats, although this didn't make much difference, because the arena was about ¼ full. A river, possibly the river Derwent, running through the complex, separating the audience from the stage. The impact of Bellowhead is slightly numbed when they are several miles away from you, and with the best will in the world, its hard to get the nuances of the aforementioned Jim Moray doing the aforementioned Lord Douglas in that environment. During the Demon Barber's set, a man with a guitar ambled through the audience who were, by this time, standing on the tarmac near the rail. He turned out to be Martin Carthy.

Green Note Cafe, Camden Town
About 100 yards from Cecil Sharp House itself. Fits 50, of whom about 20 can sit down. Admission only granted to people who know a special hand shake (I made that up). If you want to sit, you need to buy a ticket AND book a table and eat. If you want a table near the stage, you have to form a queue at 6, and take you seat at 7, in plenty of time for the music at 9. In return, you get to hear Martin Carthy, Alasdair Roberts, Robin Williamson in surroundings that redefine the word "intimate". I love this place to bits. 

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. .

Thursday, January 26, 2012



by Steve Tilston

There are a limited number of performers who would use the word "misbegotten" in a song. But then there are a limited number of performers who combine a gift for melody, poetry and actual thinking in the way that Steve does. (He is in the category of "you may not have heard of him but you have probably heard some of his songs".) The Reckoning is a deeply reflective piece about the kind of world that we are leaving to the next generation. Refreshingly free from obvious target hunting or jerking knees, it has a melody which manages to be memorable without actually being catchy. 

"I offer you this toast should these troubles come to roost / for we ate the golden goose and left the reckoning to you."

by Billy Bragg

Thank God for Billy Bragg. Literally, thank God for Billy Bragg. I may or may not have mentioned before that Tony Blair became the the godfather of Rupert Murdoch's baby, in a ceremony which took place on the banks of the River Jordan. The nauseating -- literally nauseating -- hypocrisy of both teams -- the "socialist" politician in bed with an empire that is committed to destroying everything he stands for, the empire cultivating the personal friendships of politicians they pretend to "hold to account" -- more of less guarantees that nothing honest or indeed coherent can ever be said in any parliamentary debate, op ed columns or media talk show. So it is left to people like Billy Bragg to use music and plain speach to tell it how it is. Or how they think it is. It hardly matters if you agree with him: it's enough that he uses words to to convey meaning, instead of to obscure it. He eschews triumphalism at the wounding of the Murdoch empire, and instead offers a lament. How did we let it come to this? 

"No-one comes out looking good when all is said and done / And the Scousers never buy the Sun."

What If, No Matter
by Tom Paxton

Joe Hill is supposed to have said that a leaflet, however well written, will be read once and thrown away, but a song will sung, and passed on, and repeated, and remembered. Tom Paxton's instant response to the Arizona shootings are a case in point. There were acres of newsprint and hand wringing and speculation, but Tom said all that  really needed to be said in five verses.

Billy Bragg and Steve Tilston are cleverer and more complicated, but the judge has no hesitation in giving the prize to Tom Paxton. Songs like this are the reason I started to listen to this stuff in the first place. (There is still absolutely no excuse for the Marvellous Toy.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012



The Emily Portman Trio (at the Louisiana, Bristol, Nov 8th)

Oh, there are lot of things to say about this song. That it's a truly beautiful, rounded fairy tale. That the sound the trio created in an upstairs room in a pub was astonishingly close to what is on the CD. That the song runs to something like 20 verses, and the group use that space to create a small epic; full of different musical textures; more a symphony than a ballad. That Emily has made a tiny surgical change to the traditional lyrics (changing "yonder sits my father the king" to "yonder sits my lover the king") which gives the tale a tragic logic and inevitability that it never had before. I found I had eight different versions of this song (Child Ballad 10, I looked it up) on my I-Pod. This is by far my favourite. A person on Youtube says it makes them imagine themselves "in the middle of an elvin forest, morning dew kissing greenery". Well, quite.

Bellowhead (at the Scarborough folk festival, 8 Aug)

Understand this: if you have only heard Bellowhead on CDs, then you haven't heard Bellowhead. They aren't only about music; they're about musical theater. You have to be there. One of my Folkbuddies, who hadn't heard them before, said Jon Boden was like a musical John Cleese. I see him more as a swaggering musical Captain Jack Sparrow. The CDs don't really convey how tall he is. Little Sally Racket is an infinitely long sea-shanty about local prostitutes, with the obligatory "haul away" refrain. Boden turns in a passable impersonation of the Johnny Rotten (or some fella of that kind) producing a sort of folk-punk hybrid with a hymn embedded in the middle. There are better Bellowhead songs. There are better Bellowhead songs about prostitutes. But this is always one of the highlights of their live act. The performance could scarcely be more over the top (and Bellowhead know about over the top) and coming in between two more restrained, or at any rate sane, pieces, it never fails to bring the house down, even when, as in this case, the stage was three quarters of a mile away from the audience.

Jim Moray (at Chapel Arts Bath, June 10th)

Jim diffidently presented this astonishing piece as work in progress. (There are more polished versions on the Cecil Sharp Project CD and on his new album, Skunk, to which we are likely to be returning at some point.) It's one of those traditional ballads (Child 7, I looked it up) which exists in dozens of different versions. Man elopes with girl; someone betrays them; they are chased by the girls family; man is killed; girl dies of sorrow; foliage grows out of their respective graves, as is more or less obligatory for lovers in folk songs. I can't imagine how Jim went about combining, and rewriting, the different versions, and apparently incorporating a sub plot from a similar Icelandic saga. It's a complicated story that I've had to listen to several times to get the hang of;  one of those sagas which you always seem to be lost in the middle of with feuds and love affairs and curses taken for granted before the story starts. And the tune seems to have drifted in from another world.

The Two Sisters, by the merest wisp of thistledown.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012



on Ragged Kingdom by June Tabor and the Oysterband

I think of June Tabor as "that lady who sings the rather distant, mournful, depressing songs about Scotland and the sea, often without accompaniment", which range from "my favourite songs ever(*)" to "oh, get on with it, for goodness sake!" In case you were wondering, her new album, Ashore failed to get nominated for the Nautical award because while it was undoubtedly brilliant it was also a teensy weensy bit how can I possibly put this boring. But of course, she can also more than hold her own providing the lyrics while the Oysterband are rocking out like it's 1990. There is a productive incongruity between the traditional text and the  electric arrangement. Hardly any band can mess this song up: how can you fail with lines like "I'll raise a numerous army/ And through tremendous dangers go /And in spite of all the universe /I'll conquer the bonny Bunch of Roses, O". June Tabor sings it like she's going to personally cross the channel and give Young Napoleon a jolly good talking-to. This song would have been nominated for the BEST TRACK FOR PEOPLE WHO DON'T THINK THEY WOULD LIKE FOLK MUSIC award, should such an award exist. 

(*) King of Rome, Place Called England, Unicorns, A Proper Sort of Gardener, Hughie Graham, Best Patrick Spens Ever, etc

on Wayside Courtesies by Pilgrims' Way

Pilgrims' Way are the probably the most exciting new band of 2011. ("New" is here defined as "band I first heard perform in" by which definition, admittedly, Steeleye Span would count as "new" but let's not get bogged down at this stage). They're essentially traditionalists, with the touch of electricity on some songs not nearly as distinct as the jews harp (a.k.a "that thing which goes twang?") on others. Lucy Wright's vocals are forceful but sweet sounding ever-so folkie without ever drifting into nasal cliches. 

A Pilgrim's Way is also a pome by Mr Rudyard Kipling which was set to music by Mr Peter Bellamy. If you aren't careful it can go on for ever. (Jon Boden, and indeed Mr Bellamy himself, were not careful.) Pilgrims' Way (the band) give it a light, musical feel, free of trickery or fireworks; and Lucy navigates "Amorites and Erermites and general Avergees" as if she had some idea what it meant. 

It has been mentioned before that many of us in the blogsphere could be improved by a judicious application of the precepts of verse 3.

on The Works by Spiers and Boden

I have to admit to being slightly disappointed by The Works -- much as I love Spiers and Boden, I wished they could have given us an CD of new material, rather than new takes, however high quality, on material we already know pretty well. That said, any one track on the album is great, and this one is just about my favourite. The story of how Bold Sir Rylas cut an old lady in half is a great Pythonesque yarn with a sing-a-long chorus the singing along on the album is no lessor a person than Maddy Prior. (Martin Carthy contributes to Prickley Bush, but you’d hardly know.) All together now: He split her head down to the chin! You should of heard seen her kick and grin!

Pilgrims Way by a country mile. (BUT NOTE: It’s really “The People, Lord, thy People” not “The people, oh, the people.")

Monday, January 23, 2012



Hold Fast 
by the Sail Pattern

The Sail Pattern are on the rockier end of folk rock compared with what I usually like, but when your first album is as good as this, you are welcome to be at which ever end of anything you choose.They have attitude They can play. They have their own voice. If they decide to sing Farewell And Adieu To Your Spanish Ladies then by god, you know you're listening to a Sail Pattern version of Farewell And Adie To You Spanish Ladies. There's a convincing machismo to the vocals offset by the merest hint of immaturity. (They look all of about 17.) They show every sign of caring about the folk tradition, and every sign of having grabbed it by the throat and thrown it overboard. Hard to know where their lyrics start and Anon's lyrics end. ("A puppet's on the throne of Spain and Bonaparte's in Cairo / With Nelson's ship we sailed away and fought him on the Nile-oh.") Their signature track, Hold Fast, wot they wrote themselves, oozes naval atmosphere; it isn't a shanty, it isn't a ballad, but it's fundamentally itself.

Port of Escape
by Chris Ricketts

Chris Ricketts claims to sing sea shanties with a twist. I am not quite sure what the twist is. I think it may be "good singing". He ooozes authenticity and sincerity. He sings Hanging Johnny (a relatively meaningless work song) with a mixture of melancholy and menace. ("I'd hang the holy family...'cos hanging is so bloody funny.") He sings Bound For South Australia with straightforward honesty and a didgereedoo, which mysteriously causes you to forget that such a band as Fisherman's Friends ever existed. He sings the full dress version of Spanish Ladies with guitars and seagulls and no lyrical concessions to landlubbers ("till we strike the soundings in the channels of old England"). He sings North West Passage, which might actually be a step too far. I heard him open for Martin Simpson, which is something no guitarist should ever have to do. There's something modest and warm and real in his voice; as if a  hundred year old sea dog has somehow got stuck in the body of a hobbit.

 Tomorrow We'll Be Sober 
 by Blackbeard's Tea Party

Last years EP, Heavens to Betsy blew me away. This year's follow up is even better. The choice of songs is impeccable: you can't not love an album which includes Barret's Privateers, Chicken on a Raft and Landlord Fill the Flowing Glass. The latter may be a rollicking bollocking drinking song with dirty words (which may owe more to the reenactment circuit than to Cecil Sharp) but it bears repeated listenings because of the wit of the arrangements (the musicians finding increasingly silly things to accompany each verse with). The finest, and least subtle moment on this, or perhaps any, album comes at the end of the colliers song I Can Hew. (Sweetly and mournfully): "And when I die, I know full well, I'm not bound for heaven I am bound for..." (rock-out explosion) "HELL!"

It was a dem close run thing, but the judge awarded the prize to Sail Pattern so he could claim to have liked them before they went mainstream.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Welcome to this years Montpelier Station Music Awards (affectionately know as The Montys) in which a panel of judge, chosen from a short list of blogger living in big pink houses right near Montpelier Station selects its favourite musical moments of 2011.

And now without further ado: please pass me the plain brown envelope. 

That appears to be letter from the gas company, threatening to take the tenant who left in 2005 without leaving a forwarding address to court. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is Tolkien Actually Any Good?

Did Gandalf Torture Gollum? 

Did Susan Pevensie Go To Hell? 

Who Wrote The Poems of C.S. Lewis?

Do Balrogs have wings?

Andrew Rilstone answers thirteen important questions about C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien -- their lives, their books and their worlds. 

Reviews and critiques of books, plays and those god-awful movies

Every Inklings-related word that Andrew has published since 1999. 

Never-before published material, including

* a detailed response to Planet Narnia
* thoughts on Jack's Life and Lenten Lands
* a new, definitive essay on the trillemma
* a commentary on the internet furore which engulfed my essay Is Tolkien Actually Any Good

Lost Usenet essays and other rare fragments of Rilstonia.  

Thirteen or so years in the making
About 300 pages
Around 100,000 words

Available from Amazon and in E-Book format in due course.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Public service anouncement

To the person who googled "Woody Guthrie one eyed banker story" and landed on this page, it goes like this:

There was once a one eyed banker, who went to the finest optometrist in the country, and paid him a small fortune to make the best glass eye money could buy. He was incredibly pleased with it. The next day, a poor farmer came to the bank to ask for an extension on his loan. Before getting down to business, the one eyed banker said "I bet you a dollar you can't tell which is my glass eye". 

"The left one" says the farmer. 

"How could you tell" said the banker, very disapointed. 

"Because that's the one with a tiny glint of human compassion in it" replied the farmer.

To the person who googled "Cuddling your father's willy" and ended up on this page: please go somewhere else. 

Personally I prefer the one about the two rabbits.  

Friday, January 06, 2012

An Unearthly Child

Teach me how to grow in goodness,
Daily as I go;
Thou hast been a child, and surely
Thou dost know.

So. Folk songs about the childhood of Jesus. Subversive, heretical stories; alternative Jesuses; hidden, suppressed traditions; lost spiritualities that the church doesn't want you to know about; hints from which we can reassemble long lost truths about the lost boyhood of Christ.

Well, no, obviously not. Pious folk in the olden days read the New Testament and wondered what was happening "off stage". When did Joseph propose to Mary? How did he find that she was pregnant? What did they do in Egypt? What happened when they go home? The four Gospels didn't tell them. So they made stuff up. Out of their heads. And the stuff that they made up is, in some cases, so off-the-wall that we read it and think: :"Were they reading the same Bible us we are?"

But they were. And that's what makes it so interesting. 


Think of one of the more familiar songs. Think of Once In Royal David's City. We've heard the song so many times that we've probably never listened to it. Cecil Frances Alexander (Mrs) evidently also had a bunch of questions about little baby Jesus, and also found that the Bible didn't answer them, so she also made stuff up. Out of her head. And her made up stuff is actually a good deal less convincing than the off-the-wall stuff in the "apocryphal" sources. "And through all his wondrous childhood / He would honour and obey / Love and watch the lowly maiden / In whose gentle arms he lay." Never mind that the one actually canonical story about the boy Jesus shows Mary practically loosing her blessed temper with him ("Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?") "Christian children all must be / Mild, obedient, good as he." We know that this is what the boy Jesus was like, because this is what the boy Jesus must have been like. It doesn't occur to us that it no more comes out of the Bible than do the stories about Psycho Jesus bringing toys to life and striking playmates dead. We know that Mary and Joseph were the poorest of the poor, and that there was a donkey and an innkeeper and a stable. But if a different set of pious legends had taken root, we'd know that Mary was rich -- a Queen or Princess who lived in the Temple and had taken a vow of celibacy. And that Jesus was born in a cave. 


Stephen Green (a lunatic) pretended to be very offended by the dramatised retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus that the BBC did last year. I don't think he'd actually seen it. Lunatics never go and see things before they get offended by them. It looked to me as if the Nasty Mail phoned him up and said "The BBC's new Nativity film insinuates that Mary was raped, what do you think of that?" and he replied "That's just typical of the BBC. All part of a Communist plot to undermine the Christians basis of our civilisation I shouldn't wonder." 

In Tony Jordan's actual script, Joseph is shocked to find out that Mary is pregnant. Mary says "It was not my doing". Joseph replies, in horror "You were raped?" He's not slandering Mary, but trying to make excuses for her.

One wonders how Christian Voice would have reacted to the dramatised retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus that the craft guilds of Chester used to present during the fourteenth century. In that version, one of the two women who Joseph has found to take care of his wife and his new baby decides to test the claim that Mary is physically a virgin. The stage directions don't leave anything to the imagination. "Tunc Salome tentabit tangere Mariam in sexu secreto" they say: "Then Salome tries to touch Mary's private parts". Salome's hand is struck with leprosy as punishment; but she says sorry to the newborn Jesus and it gets better. 

Obviously, there is not a word about this in the Bible, but it's a very ancient legend. What would an ordinary human midwife have done if she'd been told that the lady who'd just given birth was literally a virgin? What would a pious man have thought if his absolutely trustworthy wife returned from a visit to her cousin obviously pregnant? It isn't only 21st century soap opera writers who ask these sorts of questions.


So. In the first of our folk-songs, Mary, the Queen of Galilee, is walking in an orchard with her elderly husband Joseph. She asks him to pick her some fruit: "Go and fetch me some cherries Joseph, for I am with child." This seems to be the first he knows about the baby, because he snaps back "Let he pluck you the cherries that brought you now with child." That's the lovely thing about these old songs. It starts out being pious and beautiful and rather courtly -- we're surely supposed to imagine a medieval lady and her lord perambulating through a beautiful English orchard -- and suddenly we hear the voice of a medieval carpenter saying just what a medieval carpenter would say if he thought his wife had been cheating on him. The unborn Baby Jesus immediately says "Bow down then, tall cherry tree, for my mother to have some." The tree does so; Mary picks the cherry; and Joseph is sorry for having doubted her. 

At one level, its a simple miracle story: how did Joseph come to find out that the Mary had a supernatural baby? Because he performed a miracle even before he was born. But for those able to see it, there's also a hidden meaning: if we believe in the Trinity, then God is both the father of the Baby, and the Baby itself. So Joseph's words come true literally, though he presumably doesn't know it yet. 

It is rather hard to see where this incident would fit into the story of Jesus birth in Matthew and Luke's gospels. The Bible doesn't tell us how or when Joseph finds out about Mary's baby: it just says that it happened after they were engaged, but before they were married. [*] I suppose she might have blurted it out while they were taking a walk in a cherry orchard. The Bible says that Joseph subsequently had a dream in which an angel told him that Mary was, in fact, still a virgin. He would have to have been quite obtuse to have needed an angelic messenger after he'd seen local trees worshipping Mary's unborn son. He'd have to have been positively perverse to still be sulking after he'd had his chat with Gabriel. So when does the story happen? Doubtless, you could harmonise it with the original story if you really wanted to. We Doctor Who fans are good at coming up with post-hoc rationalisations of blatant contradictions. But if you'd pointed out to Anon that his song contradicted the Bible, I think he would have said the medieval equivalent of "Duh -- hello! It's a song. I made it up for the wassailers to sing."

Or possibly, he didn't care very much about "the Bible". Possibly, he couldn't read, or couldn't read Latin. Possibly, he knew about Joseph and Mary and Baby Jesus only as stories: stories told by the priests, acted out in mystery plays, sung in vernacular songs. Possibly, he thought that "making up a new story about Joseph and Mary" was no odder than "making up a new story about Robin Hood." Or perhaps not exactly "making up": telling the same story in a new way. His story isn't that different from the Biblical one after all: Joseph is cross; because he thinks Mary had been cheating on him; something supernatural happens; he starts believing. They aren't characters in a soap opera where one thing leads to the next thing which leads to the next thing: they are characters from the land of Story where everything is always happening over and over again for the first time. Possibly, when the Bible got translated into English and someone invented the printing press, people like Anon stopped thinking of it as a body of stories, and started thinking of it as a big black book. Perhaps they didn't feel as free to make stuff up about stories in a big black book. Nowadays, when people make stuff up, like the Three Kings and the Stable and the Innkeepers Wife and Family Values, they pretend that it is really in the Bible, and get very cross, or pretend to get very cross, if you point out that it isn't.  Because once you have a big scary black book on your shelf, the last thing you are going to do is actually read it.


"But Andrew...Anon wasn't really making stuff up out of his head, was he? There were other written down lives of Jesus apart from the four 'official' ones, weren't there. And some of those included stories about his wondrous childhood, didn't they? But the Church wouldn't put those in her big black book because they were heretical and feminist and gnostic and contained the secret whereabouts of the Holy Grail. Anon was working from that hidden tradition. The carols show us a secret Jesus that the Church would rather we didn't find out about."

Well, up to a point.

The Cherry Tree Carol doesn't appear to have been drawn directly from any of the so-called apocryphal gospels. There an old book purporting to be St Matthew's long lost prequel to his Gospel (which it certainly isn't) as translated by St Jerome (which it almost certainly wasn't). That book includes a story in which the Holy Family are hiding from King Herod in Egypt. Mary fancies some figs from a very tall fig palm. Joseph says he's more worried about water. So Baby Jesus make the tree bend down, and where it touches the ground, a magic spring pops up. Mary gets her figs, Joseph gets his water, and Baby Jesus says that to commemorate this, people who win competitions will be given palms as prizes from now on. 

I'm not making this up. But somebody clearly was. 

It is quite possible that Anon was familiar with the fake Matthew book. But he evidently didn't regard it as an authentic alternative tradition, to be handed down from master to apprentice and thus concealed from the Big Bad Church. It looks more like he read it and thought "Magic fruit idea, but I could have put it to much better dramatic use."

M.R. James, who knew about this kind of thing, thought that the fake Matthew prequel might be as early as the 9th century: that puts it as close to the real historical Jesus as Errol Flynn was to the real historical Robin Hood. Granted, most of the text (though not the fig tree incident) comes from the books of James and Thomas, which  are much older. M.R James thought they were from around the turn of the 3rd / 4th centuries --about as close to the events as we are to Bonny Prince Charlie. [**] You only have to read them to see that they are not independent alternatives to Matthew and Luke: they are written by people who had read Matthew and Luke over and over and written their own stories to expand them. They are, in fact, nothing more or less than fan-fiction. "James" is a prequel about how Mary and Joseph got married, and the details of Jesus birth. (It introduces a midwife called Salome, but doesn't say she molested Mary.) "Thomas" is about Jesus "missing years". It starts with the boy Jesus in Nazareth making clay sparrows and bringing them to life; it ends with him being taken to the temple at the age of twelve. That's an obvious hallmark of fan fiction. The official text is indeed completely silent about the period between the flight into Egypt and the trip to Jerusalem, so the fanfic writer feels justified in inventing something to plug the gaps. Luke's story of the boy Jesus giving his parents the slip so he can spend more time showing off to the rabbis in the temple finishes by saying that he went back to Nazareth and obeyed his parents from then on. So a story about a teenage Jesus getting into trouble would contradict established continuity. A story about an eight year old Jesus being a naughty little deity is just about permissible.

Which brings us to the second of our folk songs. In this one, you will recall, Jesus goes out to play ball with some rich kids, who poke fun at him and make insinuations about his mother. So he performs a miracle: he makes a magic beam of light across the river, walks across it, and asks the other kids to follow him. They do, but not being Sons of God, they fall through the invisible bridge and drown. When Mary hears about this, she smacks Jesus three times with a stick. (Which seems pretty lenient for murder: Mickey Harrington got six for riding his Raleigh bike across the cricket pitch.) In the same way that he blessed the date palm, Jesus curses the stick he was hit with.

Maddy Prior, who knows a thing or two about folk songs, thought that Anon was offering an alternative to orthodox dogma: "This story of the boy Jesus portrays him as all too human, and does not accord with the given Bible Image. It strikes me as a parable concerning power and the need for everyone to learn how to use it."  Possibly she also had access to a missing verse in which Joseph tells Jesus that in this life with great power must also come great responsibility. 

Jesus is not the Tot of Steel. He isn't even Harry Potter. He is a little boy who is also God. And that is something which it is completely impossible to get your head round. So the fan fiction writers don't even try to get their heads round it. They don't offer clever explanations of the paradox. They don't explain to us that since the second person of the Trinity and a human being were combined into a single person, there is no problem with saying that Jesus both knew everything there was to know and had to go back to school and learn stuff. They run with the paradox. It's the illogicality they find delightful. They tell us that when Jesus started school, he told his teacher "I am ALPHA and OMEGA so how dare you try to teach me the alphabet". He got slapped for that as well.

Some people are tempted to describe this stuff as "gnostic", in the sense of "weird". ("Gnostic", as a wise man once said, is a word used to describe any passage in the Bible which the present writer doesn't understand.) Cecil Sharp, who also knew a thing or two about folk songs, mentions another carol called The Holy Well. In that version, some kids are horrible to Jesus, and Mary Mild encourages him to punish them. But he won't, because he's not that kind of Messiah. "From this" explains Mr Sharp "We may conclude that the Holy Well is a comparatively modern recension of the Bitter Withy, modified so that it shall the better accord with a truer conception of the character of Jesus." People in the olden days thought that Jesus might have stuck the bullies dead, but we Victorians know what he must have really been like.
But in fact, it's all perfectly orthodox. There's is nothing theologically odder about the old song in which Jesus has to go across his mother's knee for a smack than the newer one in which he always honours and obeys the lowly maiden in whose gentle arms he lay. The idea that God who made the universe does whatever Mary tells him to is no odder than the idea that God who made the universe doesn't always do what Mary tells him. Maybe it seems odd to us that Mary Mild would correct Jesus harshly, but then Mary Mild is another thing we made up out of our heads. The Mary of the Bible is anything but mild. She's into casting down the mighty from their seats and exalting the humble, which is like, commie talk. The idea that Mary has to say "mind you don't get into any trouble" to Jesus only strikes us as odd because we were raised with the Victorian toy-doll version of Jesus. Of course Jesus won't get into trouble. He's Jesus. 

But we wouldn't, I think, be nearly as freaked out by a story in which Joseph had to say "No, lad, if you carve your dove-tale joint like that, the whole wardrobe will collapse". (Or maybe we would. Charles Dickens, who didn't really believe that Jesus was God, still thought the Milias' painting of Christ in the Carpenter's shop was almost too disgusting to be exhibited.) If learning stuff is part of being a child and Jesus was really a child, then Jesus must have really had to learn stuff. If learning to be good is part of growing up and teaching your child to be good is part of being a good parent, then there must have been times when Mary had to, in the jargon, teach Jesus the difference between right and wrong.  


Or maybe not. St Augustine, god bless him, says that if an adult were to scream for his food and cry if he doesn't get it, we'd say that he was being selfish; and that we try to stop children from being selfish as soon as they are old enough to teach. It follows that a crying baby is, in a technical sense, "sinning"; a perfect, un-fallen baby in the Garden of Eden would not have behaved like that. So if, theologically, Jesus represents what human beings would have been like if not for the Fall then maybe it follows that the boy Jesus would never have tripped, or disobeyed, or accidentally injured his hand with one of Joseph's tools -- and baby Jesus would never have cried. In which case, we would have to say that Jesus and Mary are literally unimaginable alien beings, and the question "What would Jesus do?" is hardly worth asking. 
And perhaps hymns like Away in a Manger and Once In Royal David's City are delighted by that side of the paradox: the utterly unimaginable un-fallen human baby. And maybe we need to hear both sides of the story. But Away in a Manger is the one which flirts with heresy. Because if you believe in little-Lord-Jesus-no-crying-he-makes, you are in danger of thinking "God didn't really become a baby -- he just pretended to."

One day, I intend to read St Augustine. But not yet.

If Mary never needs to say "Mind you aren't naughty" to the creator of the Universe and if the creator of the Universe never wanted to play catch then he wasn't a human, he was just a holy spook temporarily animating a child shaped zombie. But that's what the folk tale has such fun with. In so far as a he is a child, it's natural for him to go out playing, and be bullied by other kids. In so far as he is God then it's natural for him to strike people who blaspheme against him dead. In so far as he is a Boy, its natural for him to get punished for being naughty. In so far as he is God, its natural for him to put a curse on the naughty step. By showing a small child behaving like God and God being treated like a small child, we are being encouraged to get our heads around the idea of the god-child. Or to entirely fail to do so, which is the best we can manage.


"That's all very well. But wasn't it rather hard luck on the other kids, who didn't know who it was that they were taking the mickey out of? Getting drowned seems like an awfully harsh punishment for bad manners."

"I thought we'd already covered this. No children were harmed in the composition of this song. Because, it's like a song. I made it up. Couldn't you tell?"

Mind you, if you were a poor medieval dude in a tavern, not being quite sure where your next turnip was coming from, then it would probably have forgivable to laugh at three rich snobs getting thrown in the river because they didn't understand that you shouldn't mess with baby Jesus. And people in Merrie England with it's infant mortality and bubonic plague and what not probably found it easier to believe that God had a bit of a temper than we do.

Actually, I can think of three other possible theological readings of the Bitter Withy song, all based around the fact that the drowned children didn't know who they were taunting. But if I  start down that path we'll still be here next Epiphany. Let's just say that Anon really does fit an astonishing number of levels of meaning into his songs. He's very nearly as good as Dylan. [***] 


If any biologists have read this far, I know well enough what they will say. "Well, there you are then. The nasty church decided that from June 325, Christians would have to believe two completely inconsistent things and Christians have had to twist their heads into all sorts of silly contortions before breakfast every morning ever since. When they use words like 'paradox' they really mean that they know its all a load of rubbish but are pretending that it isn't. Sky-fairy! Sky-fairy! Sky-fairy!" 

So it is probably worth noting that the moment at which I personally stopped thinking of the story of Baby Jesus as one of those dull fables that grown ups went on and on about and started to think of it as something exciting and fascinating was precisely the moment at which I perceived that the paradox was a paradox. 

Another little lyric by Anon sticks in my mind.

A God, and yet a man? 
A mayde, and yet a mother? 
Witt wonders what witt can 
Conceave this or the other.

A God, and can he die? 
A dead man, can he live? 
What witt can well replie? 
What reason reason give?

God, truth it selfe doth teache it; 
Mans witt sinkes too farr under 
By reasons power to reach it 
Beleeve, and leave to wonder!

[*] In the BBC film, Mary's condition is obvious to Joseph when she comes back from her three month long visit to Elizabeth. I think that is probably implicit in Luke's Gospel, actually.

[**] If Matthew's Gospel is from AD 100 then its as close to the real events as we are to the First World War: plenty of time for myths to develop, but the last eye-witnesses have just died off.

[***] a: It's an allegory of the last judgement b: It's an allegory of the atonement c: It's a rather nasty example of the "blood libel.".