Soundtrack Of A Photograph, The Christmas Editions, Part 20

Song- Sweet Bells

Artist- Kate Rusby

As far as I am concerned the sound of a bell ringing is one of the most natural and pleasing sounds to the ear. Throughout the year they can be heard, pealing from churches of all denominations, resonating over towns and cities for miles around. There is something universally appealing about the sounds of bells ringing. I am not sure why that is. It might be because of the percussive quality (which I find people always respond to). It might also be because of the tonal quality they have. But it is at this time of year that bells seem to become even more present in our lives. Aside from those church bells, the Christmas season would not be complete without hearing bell ringers from the Salvation Army, ringing throughout the day and evening seeking charitable contributions. Bells are also of course part of so many Christmas songs. Jingle Bells, Silver Bells, Carol Of The Bells, The Bells Of St. Mary’s, Ding Dong Merrily On High, Sleigh Ride, I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day, are just a few well known ones that have bells as part of the title or feature heavily in the song.

Sweet Bells however, may not be as well known to most Americans however. It is a variant of the song While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks which is attributed to the poet and lyricist Nahum Tate. I have been familiar with the song for many years now, and it was probably from choir versions. I also have it on CD’s from The Albion Christmas Band (see the Christmas Soundtracks Parts 1 and 17) as well as by Waterson:Carthy (see the Christmas Soundtrack Part 13). Whether by choir or folk group though, it has an interesting sort of rise and fall to the melody which has always stuck with me. That includes at times other than the Christmas season when I secretly hum the tune in my head. Or should I say melodies, because I can hum it (since I do not sing) to a few different tunes.  As I have discussed in both this Christmas blog series and in the regular blogs, the reason traditional music is so fascinating to me is the alteration of songs and tunes from one place to another. So you have it that in Oxford, England a song might be sung set to one particular tune, but in Sheffield it is sung to a completely different one. It can be confusing, and can lead to a lot of, “I know this song, but not sung like this” moments the further you delve into traditional music, but it is big part of the appeal for me. We also see this in choral arrangements at this time of year too. The song I wrote about on Wednesday in part 17,  In The Bleak Midwinter is a good example of this, with two distinctly different ways of singing the song possible in a choir setting. So it is not surprising at all that While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks has several variants in traditional music circles.

On her 2008 Christmas album Sweet Bells, English singer Kate Rusby actually sang two of those variants of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks. There is Hail Chime On and the song I am including here, Sweet Bells. They are both practically identical to While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks except for a different  chorus. Proof of those ever so slight variations that take can take place in traditional music. If you watch the full clip here you can hear Kate talk about some of that before launching into a beautiful live rendition of the song.

Just like with While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks itself, I have been a Kate Rusby fan for years. With a voice as beautiful as hers it is hard not to be. Since her entry on to the scene more than twenty years ago at this point she has built a dedicated legion of followers. It is one of those stop what you are doing type voices the first time you hear her sing. When I used to work at Tower Records and would put an album of hers on, I encountered this many times. Though I listen to her music year round, it just would not feel like Christmas without hearing her sing this song. Rather like that inescapable sound of a bell ringing somewhere this time of year, from a street corner or from a church. Sweet Bells is yet another reminder of them and I am okay with that. And with Kate Rusby too!

Sweet Bells-Traditional, Arranged By Kate Rusby

All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via for details.

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