While Shepherds Watched their Yorkshire Flocks

Mon, 10/12/2018 - 11:30 -- James Oakley
Ilkley Moor
Image Credit: Craig Wilkinson

Several years back I wrote about a discovery that the carol, While Shepherds Watched not only fits to the tune of On Ilkley Moor Baht 'at, the Yorkshire folk tune, but that may even have been the original tune.

In hymn books, the tune's actual name is Cranbrook. I've since noticed that Wikipedia even mentions that the tune is one traditionally used for this well-loved Christmas carol, although it stops short of saying that it is the original tune.

In fact, looking at the dates, it seems unlikely. The tune Winchester Old, to which While Shepherds Watched is most commonly sung today, appears in print as early as 1553. However Cranbrook was composed around about 1800. What is true is that most Christmas carols had their origins as folk music, and were originally brought into church in the west gallery musical tradition. The result is rowdy and enthusiastic singing. It was the Victorians that popularised the organ-accompanied tune we know today. So whilst Cranbrook may not be the oldest tune to this much-loved carol, its musical style is more in keeping with the way carols were traditionally sung.

Anyway, it's fun to sing. We've done it a few times here now, both for the school carol service that takes place in our church, and once at our Christmas Eve crib service to which we get 4-500 people. Folk music like On Ilkley Moor Baht 'at raises the roof when you've got a nice full church like that. Indeed, it's so much fun to sing that the school asked if we could do it again this year. Last time we did, it was my idea; this year it's theirs. Well, if we must …!

Here are a couple of things I've found that may help if you want to have a go this Christmas.

Music

First, some music. I found somewhere where someone had arranged this. I can't remember where I got it from, so as usual please contact me if you wish me not to link to this. The words and the tune are both in the public domain. You can save the image below by right-clicking, or use the attachments link at the bottom of this post.

Cranbrook Sheet MusicThen, the words.

Words

You'll see that there are some echoes in the music above. The echoes are part of what makes this fun, so go for it! That said, the echoes of the last line ("And glory shone around", in the first verse) come quite fast, and so are trickier to sing. For that reason, for a gathering learning this for the first time, I'd suggest just singing the echoes on lines 1 and 3, and not the ones on line 4.

This gives you words like this:

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
(Flocks by night,)
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
(The angel of the Lord came down,)
The angel of the Lord came down,
(The angel of the Lord came down,)
And glory shone around (x3).

"Fear not," said he, for mighty dread
(mighty dread)
Had seized their troubled minds;
"Glad tidings of great joy I bring
(Glad tidings of great joy I bring)
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
(Glad tidings of great joy I bring)
To you and all mankind (x3).

"To you in David's town this day
(town this day)
Is born of David's line
A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord,
(A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord,)
A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord,
(A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord,)
And this shall be the sign (x3):

"The heav'nly Babe you there shall find
(there shall find)
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
(All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,)
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
(All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,)
And in a manger laid (x3)."

Thus spake the Seraph; and forthwith
(and forthwith)
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus
(Of angels praising God, who thus)
Of angels praising God, who thus
(Of angels praising God, who thus)
Addressed their joyful song (x3):

All glory be to God on high,
(God on high)
And to the Earth be peace;
Goodwill henceforth from Heav'n to men
(Goodwill henceforth from Heav'n to men)
Goodwill henceforth from Heav'n to men
(Goodwill henceforth from Heav'n to men)
Begin and never cease (x3)."

What God did in Bethlehem that first Christmas is the most amazing miracle. It is so exciting, it deserves being sung about with all the gusto, joy and enthusiasm we can muster. After all, the first thing God did, after explaining what's happened to some shepherds, was to fill the sky with more praising angels than you could count. The narrative flow of Luke 2 could have missed that bit. It could have gone: Jesus born, lead angel appeared to shepherds and told them what's happened in David's town, shepherds go to see this thing for themselves. But no, there was a pause to fill the sky with light and joyful sounds.

If it's good enough for God and his myriad angels, it's good enough for us.

Enjoy!

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