They were once sung out in the streets and on the farms around the remote towns and villages of West Devon and now, the ‘West Devon Carols’ are being revived by Wren Music so that they can be heard again.
The West Devon Carols are distinct to the district and became popular towards the end of the 19th century, when most locals would have been familiar with them – although documents suggest their origins go back much further.
Many of the carols have been lost through the passage of time, but five have been revived by Wren Music. To ensure they never get lost again, we are holding a workshop for a new generation to learn them, before performing them as part of a Folk Carols by Candlelight concert at the town’s St James Chapel in Okehampton.
“At one time, these carols would have been well-known and sung throughout communities in West Devon, where there was a strong tradition of village carol singing,” said Marilyn Tucker from Wren Music.
“The carols are different to the carols that are popular today, they’re more folksy, and are from the non-conformist tradition of this area. They would have been more at home being sung out and about, rather than in a chapel. It was a way of cheering everyone up in the middle of a long, dark winter.”
The West Devon Carols were first brought to our attention around 30 years ago, when a local woman, Barbara Cubbin from Bratton Clovelly, turned up to our office with a reel-to-reel tape: “These five carols were on there, being sung by a band of local men in unaccompanied harmony,” explained Marilyn. “It appears the recording was done in the 1960s, so we know the carols were probably still being sung in communities in West Devon going into the 1970s.
“Barbara had no way of listening to them, so she asked if we could transfer the recordings to tape. We did one for her, and we did one for our archive of traditional South West song collections.”
The names of the carols weren’t listed with the reel-to-reel recording, so we have given them names to reflect the words – Hark, The Music of the Cherubs; Let Christians All Awake; Hark, ‘Tis Angels Singing; These Earthly Pleasures; Awake, Awake, Ye People All.
From the tape recording, our professional musicians noted down the scores and transcribed the words and taught them to a local group, The Packhorse Singers, and children at the primary school in Bratton Clovelly: “Now, 30 years later, we feel it’s time to revive them, and revive them for good,” said Marilyn. “Hopefully, they’ll become popular again so that they can be sung in communities across the district every year.”
The West Devon Carols workshop takes place from 2pm-5pm on Sunday 10 December at the Church Hall in Market Street, Okehampton, and is open to everyone. Those who wish can then join in with singing them at Folk Carols by Candlelight on Thursday 14 December, 7pm-8.30pm. Some lines from These Earthly Pleasures were missing on the original tape, and we’re hoping that with the renewed interest in the carols, the words can be rediscovered in time for the concert.
The revival follows a similar project five years ago, when Wren Music worked with villagers in Landkey in north Devon to bring forward the Landkey Carols. That’s proved so successful that the Landkey Carols are now an annual tradition, led by Landkey Sings. We are working with the choir again this year, with community rehearsals ahead of a candlelight service at St Paul’s Church, Landkey, on 21 December at 7.30pm.
Like the West Devon Carols, the Landkey Carols were also popular in the late 1800s, and there are stories of singers from the village heading out into the night to sing them to people living in neighbouring communities. Some of the farmsteads were so remote, the singers would often be out singing until the early hours – and sometimes until breakfast time!
Marilyn said: “There might be other village carol traditions in Devon, so if you know of any, please let us know. It would be great to revive them again.”