Why have we no songs of our own?

Dec 16th, 2009 | By | Category: Spirituality

Preparing Sunday’s carol service there was a deep sense of frustration.  The Christmas carols sung in English cathedrals are very nice – in English cathedrals.  Why in a different country, with different traditions, are we not singing our own songs?  It’s not as though there hasn’t been a long time to think about it.

In primary school days in England, we knew that different countries had different songs to sing.  The Huron Carol would have been familiar to a whole generation of English school children.  It was one of those songs that would have featured in the autumn term of BBC radio’s schools music programme Singing Together. At our Primary School there was a big wooden valve wireless, which remained permanently tuned to the frequency for the schools broadcasts.

Having been blessed with the lifelong inability to sing, Singing Together never really captured my imagination. The BBC songbooks were handed out, a new edition for each term, and we were all expected to pay close attention to the presenter. I don’t remember a single thing about the programme, but a few of the songs still stick in my head, “Land of the silver birch”, “It’s raining again” and “The praties they grow small”. I think we might have been allowed to vote for our favourite song in a nationwide poll, but that might be something my memory has embroidered.

I wish I had paid more attention to the Huron Carol because the words are special; they show how to sing your own songs. The carol, which is set to a French Canadian tune, was written by Fr. Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit priest in Quebec, in about 1643.

Three and a half centuries ago, de Brebeuf was writing carols for Canadians to sing; in 2009 we still have not caught up with him Father de Brebeuf attempted in a simple song to tell the story of Jesus in terms meaningful to the Huron people.

‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim
and wondering hunters heard the hymn,
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born , in excelsis gloria.

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round
But as the hunter braves drew nigh
the angel song rang loud and high
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt
with gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

O children of the forest free, O seed of Manitou
The holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant boy
who brings you beauty peace and joy.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

We still believe we can tell the story of Jesus to our own generation using the language of 4th century Greek philosophy and with songs from 19th Century England.

Poor Jean de Brebeuf was to die a hideous death at the hands of native people in 1649.  Were he alive, and living in Dublin,  in our own times, he would surely ask, ‘have you no songs of your own?’

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  1. There was a discussion about carols on the Today programme this morning, one of the contributors sang the first line of Calyso Carol “see him lying on a bed of straw” – it’s been runnin g through my head all day.
    I used to love Singing Together, I wish it was still on. One could do the chores at home while singing along!

  2. I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, so could never sing along with anything. Would Singing Together not be considered ‘elitist’ now?

  3. If you were at home on your own, or with loved ones it wouldn’t matter about the tune. It’s good for your heart and lungs and mental state. You are probably right about the elitist tag.

  4. my sister Jacqui says she learnt a song called ‘give me a cot in the land of the mountains’ from Singing Together – hmm, think she imagined that one…
    Men of Harlech, The Pearly Adricatic, Lili Bolero, My bonnie lies over the ocean, Molly Malone, Linsteed Market. I’m going to test you on these next time I see you – get practicing!

  5. O give me a cot in the land of the mountains,
    Seclu-ded Merion eth, whose name I love well,
    There let me a – bide a -mid tor – rents and foun-tains,
    That leap on the hill – side and spring in the dell

    Land of the Silver Birch was best!

  6. Sallyann did better – she sang it to me earlier!

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