A Ceremony of Customs and Carols: Cecil Sharp House, London, December 16 2012

If there was ever a time for folk dance and song, it’s Christmas. Carols are perhaps the best-known folk songs, and the warmth and togetherness of the season seems appropriate for communal singing, dancing and revelry. So a trip to EFDSS HQ seemed like a perfect idea for mid-December.

Cecil Sharp House tree
The mighty Christmas tree at Cecil Sharp House. It smells good, too. Photo: Rosie Reed Gold

Rather too much revelry the night before, and an appropriately seasonal hangover ensured my housemate JP and I were a bit late to Cecil Sharp House, so we unfortunately missed a display from Towersey Morris and a first set from MC Bonny Sartin (of The Yetties). But we did make it to the beautifully festooned venue in time to catch the London Gallery Quire. Nothing sounds like a choir; they’re meant to sound greater than the sum of their parts and this group didn’t disappoint, filling the room with a Christmassy glow.

The singing wasn’t restricted to performers alone, of course. A small orchestra led an array of carols for everyone to sing. They ranged from some of the less well known (Somerset Wassail, the wonderful Sussex Carol) to more familiar crackers (Ding Dong Merrily On High, Nos Galan). The always-interminable 12 Days of Christmas was a bit of a struggle, mind.

The atmosphere was pepped up significantly by some brilliant dancing, however. Camden Clog clomped their way skilfully through an enjoyable performance, which ended in cacophonous style with a medley that took in Good King Wenceslas. Thrales Rapper, from south London (as they told us, frequently), turned up the volume even more. “Feel free to shout abuse, we’re used to it!” roared the group’s ‘Tommy’. Later, he encouraged the rather genteel crowd to imitate gunfire, by banging his stick rapidly against the floor. His request was politely ignored – everyone was too busy admiring the dancing anyway: a real edge of danger was brought by the tortured twisting and flexing of the swords, while some acrobatic backflipping was monitored by a bearded, demented nurse Betty. Exciting stuff.

Thrales Rapper
Nurse Betty inspects the Thrales Rapper troops
Photo: Rosie Reed Gold

There was even more shouting in the Towersey Mummers Play. It was my first experience of such a play, and I’m no expert, but it seems to be a kind of trad pantomime, in which hero St George (hooray!) is killed by a Turkish knight (boo!), then resurrected by a doctor, who also revives the unfortunate knight after George exacts his revenge. Towersey squeezed in saucy references to George Entwhistle and the impending parenthood of Kate & Wills, as well as some amusing sausagey entrail props and snappy rhymes. I could have lived without the rendition of Rule Britannia, but I got the impression this wasn’t to be taken too seriously.

Towersey Mummers
Towersey’s St George, pre-resurrection
Photo: Rosie Reed Gold

Sartin did a nice job of holding it all together. The likeable Yettie entertained with warm, gently humorous poetry – including a pleasing yarn about ‘Dorset Airways’ and a rhyming thank you letter – and some well-delivered songs, including The Lone Shepherd, Cyril Tawney’s final composition.

Despite a few wonky moments – the orchestra occasionally finished early and a Mummers tune played on fiddle and box was a little shaky – this was a perfect way to celebrate Christmas. Shouting, dancing, drinking and singing – it’s what the big day is all about, after all.

Big Folk Witness thanks to the very talented Rosie Reed Gold for the photographs in this blog. Her website is here. Thanks also to Sophia and all at the EFDSS for the opportunity to be a social sharer. And Happy Christmas everyone!

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