WHAT a relief to be able to mention another C-word in these Coronavirus-clouded times. Christmas. Kate Rusby at Christmas, to be precise.
Tickets for the Barnsley nightingale’s now traditional York Barbican Christmas concert on December 20 go on sale tomorrow morning (April 10) at yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Kate’s sparkling Christmas shows draw on merry Christmas versions of carols, once banned from frowning Victorian churches for being too jolly, that instead found their home in the pubs of South Yorkshire (and North Derbyshire and Cornwall).
For 200 years, those South Yorkshire communities have congregated on Sunday lunchtimes from late-November to belt out, for example, variations on While Shepherds Watched.
“The Christmas side of things began for me in the ‘pub sings’ around South Yorkshire,” Kate told CharlesHutchPress last winter ahead of her York Barbican concert with her regular folk band and “brass boys” quintet on December 18.
“We were taken along as kids; our parents would be in the main room singing away, while us kids were sat with the other kids in the tap room, colouring [pictures] and drinking pop, unaware that the carols and Christmas songs were seeping into our brains!
“They’re mostly songs thrown out of the churches by the Victorians as they were thought to be far too happy! Ha! Those who loved singing them took them to the pubs, where you could combine a good old sing with beer and a natter, and there the songs have remained and been kept alive, being passed down the generations.”
So much so, Kate has released five albums of carols and original winter songs on her own Pure Records label: 2008’s Sweet Bells, 2011’s While Mortals Sleep, 2015’s The Frost Is All Over, 2017’s Angels And Men and last year’s Holly Head
“Well, I decided anyone who adores Christmas music is called a ‘Holly Head’,” she said, explaining the title. “You know, like car fanatics are petrol heads. I thought it was the perfect title for such people, and I’m a fully paid-up member of the Holly Head club.”
Songs on Holly Head ranged from the Rusby original The Holly King, to a cover of John Rox’s novelty Christmas number Hippo For Christmas, via the carol Salute The Morn, a brace of God’s Own Country variations, Yorkshire Three Ships and Bleak Midwinter (Yorkshire) and Kate’s sixth iteration of While Shepherds Watched.
“There’s over 30 different versions of While Shepherds Watched that get sung in the pubs here in South Yorkshire, so I’ve still got a lot to go at,” said Kate last December. “This one is actually to the tune of a different song that I also love, but I wasn’t that keen on the words, then realised it went with the While Shepherds words, so yey, another has now been invented.”
Picking the song most significant to her on Holly Head, Kate chose her own composition The Holly King. “It celebrates the more pagan side of Christmas. I wrote it after reading about the winter king, The Holly King, and the summer king, The Ivy King,” she said.
“Legend has it that the two met twice a year and had almighty battles. Going into winter, the Holly King would win and reign for the winter months. Then the Ivy King would wake and overthrow the Holly King and reign through the summer months, and on they went in a perfect cycle.
“I just loved the images that it conjured up and a song came flowing out. I gave him a wife, The Queen of Frost, who creeps across the land to be with him for his time. In fact, I’m now writing her song, so she will appear on the next Christmas album, I’m sure.”
May The Queen of Frost glide her icy path to York Barbican come December 20.