'While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night': A Paradigm of English Village Carolling for Three Centuries

  • Ian Russell Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen
Keywords: English Christmas carol; vernacular; Pennines oral tradition; context; performance


Why has one carol above all others become the most widely sung lyric in English vernacular carolling traditions during the last three centuries? What is it about the simple balladic structure that has endeared this narrative of the birth of Jesus Christ to generations of carollers? By what means did these words become so widely circulated and how has their popularity been sustained? Why have the singers/musicians been inspired to create and recreate so many musical settings to this text to celebrate each Christmas anew?

In this article the history and development of the carol is summarised, and key examples of the tunes adopted in its musical pathway in tradition are provided. The significance of the text is examined, alongside the sacred and secular nature of its performance in the carolling communities of the Pennine hills of south Yorkshire and north Derbyshire. The aim of the article is to provide insights into the carol’s longevity and its centrality to the many local traditions. Other aspects of vernacular Christmas carolling are touched on, including the construction of repertoire, the development of tradition, the process of annual renewal, and the experiential aspects of performance.


How to Cite
Russell, I. (2022). ’While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night’: A Paradigm of English Village Carolling for Three Centuries. European Journal of Musicology, 20(1), 81–104. https://doi.org/10.5450/EJM.20.1.2021.81