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A carol a day: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night


This was first published on December 17, 2018

WHILE Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night is one of the most enduring and popular carols, and probably one of the most parodied. I am going to get my schoolgirl version out of the way:

While shepherds washed their socks by night

All seated round the tub

A bar of Sunlight soap came down

And they began to scrub.

The bar of Sunlight soap really dates me!

The verses were written by the Irish poet Nahum Tate, who became Britain’s Poet Laureate.

Tate was born in Dublin in 1652, the son of the wonderfully named Faithful Teate, an Irish clergyman. He graduated from the city’s Trinity College and moved to London in 1676 to write for a living, changing his surname to ‘Tate’. In 1681 he saw fit to revise Shakespeare’s King Lear, omitting the Fool and introducing a happy ending in which Lear and Cordelia survive, and Cordelia marries Edgar. This was the version performed until the mid-19th century, when Shakespeare’s original came back into vogue. Tate wrote the libretto for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the first known performance of which was in 1689. In 1692 he succeeded Thomas Shadwell as Poet Laureate and held the position for 22 years.

From the beginning of the 16th century Reformation until the 18th century, hymns were practically non-existent in the Church of England. Congregational singing consisted of versified psalms. In 1696 Tate and his collaborator Nicholas Brady published a new version of the psalms, and While Shepherds Watched first appeared in a 1700 supplement to that work. Tate paraphrased the story of the nativity found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8-14, sticking closely to the Biblical words. At that time it was the only Christmas hymn authorised to be sung in the Anglican Church, and so it remained until 1792. Here are the words:

1 While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
an angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around.

2 ‘Fear not,’ said he, for mighty dread
had seized their troubled mind,
‘Glad tidings of great joy I bring
to you and all mankind.

3 ‘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 the sign:

4 ‘The heavenly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
all meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
and in a manger laid.’

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

6 ‘All glory be to God on high,
and to the earth be peace;
Goodwill henceforth from heav’n to men
Begin and never cease.’

(I found an updated version in which the first line of verse 5 becomes ‘Thus spoke the angel. Suddenly’. Presumably the words ‘spake’, ‘seraph’ and/or ‘forthwith’ were considered too obscure. In verse 4 ‘all meanly wrapped in swathing bands’ is changed to ‘all simply wrapped in swaddling clothes’ and the last two lines of verse 6 to ‘To those on whom his favour rests/goodwill shall never cease’. It is as if they are on a mission to replace the beautiful old poetry with the most pedestrian words they can think of.)

In Britain it is usually sung to the anonymous 16th century tune Winchester Old which first appeared in Este’s Whole Book of Psalmes from 1592. The words and tune were probably first published together in an arrangement by William H Monk for the first edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern in 1861. Here is a performance by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, with the congregation, from 2007.

When I wrote this piece two years ago I searched YouTube in vain for the final verse descant I remember from school. Updating it yesterday I thought I would have another go and lo and behold! I found it! Click here here to hear it.

There are very many other versions, and my thanks go to reader ‘Tim Nicely-Thornogson’ who pointed me in the direction of the singers Coope, Boyes and Simpson. They give a brilliant unaccompanied arrangement of While Shepherds Watched on their 2006 album Voices at the Door, with Fi Fraser, Jo Freya and Georgina Boyes. It is to the melody Liverpool interspersed with another song called Hail Chime On. Sad to say, the trio gave their farewell performance in 2017.

Finally, while looking around YouTube yesterday I came across the Yorkshire Version sung enthusiastically to the tune of On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at by the Stamford Bridge Singers.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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