While Shepherds Watched Christmas Countdown

Photo by Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash

From 1st December 2020 I did a Christmas Countdown on Facebook, posting a different version of While Shepherds Watched each day. There are more than 300 tunes for this carol in the UK alone, because there was a time in 17th – 18th centuries when they were the only Christmas carol lyrics permitted by the established church of the day. The words are by Nahum Tate, pretty much lifted straight from the bible and adapted to common metre.

Here’s the playlist with many different tunes: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PL85TMD3sJBpE7yLqT-xz1T08Q6YO5txi0

But the main event included some versions that are not on YouTube, so here it is with everthing, including random facts and references to some of the people following along.

The countdown

1st December. I’ll be counting down to Christmas this year by sharing a carol every day. However, in keeping with the interminable year that 2020 has been so far, it will be the same carol every time (feel free to put me on mute now!). Apparently there are so many tunes for While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night that it’s impossible to count them! I may end up repeating myself occasionally with different versions of the same tune, but there are some crackers among them, including this:


(A.K.A. ‘O for a thousand tongues’). One of my favourites and the one I heard most often in Cornwall, sung here in a hearty rendition by Canoryon Trewoon (Troon Singers – Troon, Cornwall, not Scotland obvs) in Camborne, 2009: https://youtu.be/FCifNeE1U38


Another favourite tune, this time with additional bells (there will be more of these later). In some renditions, the shepherds are told to ‘cheer up’ instead of to ‘fear not’. Here’s a lovely version by Nancy Kerr, James Fagan and Rob Harbron – if you have time you might also enjoy the interview afterwards. https://youtu.be/5BEPF1EQfjg


Also known as: LUNENBURG and SIROE. Whatever it’s called, the melody is by Handel from the opera Siroe and adapted by Samuel Arnold to fit the words. This version is by Bobby Darin from his 1960 album The 25th Day of December, because I could not resist Handel in the style of an American christmas crooner: https://youtu.be/5Y4tYIvQdZo


(A.K.A. ST DAY, MOUNT ZION and, endearingly, WHAT MELODY). TIme for another Cornish version! Thanks to Carmen for sending me this recording of the Red River Singers bringing this tune to life at one of the launch events for Hilary and Sally’s brilliant book Hark! The Glad Sound of Cornish Carols, which lists all 34(!) Cornish tunes for While Shepherds Watched that they found on their travels. Yes this is a shameless plug because it’s a brilliant book – stories and memories, historical research, scores, photos, recordings and it’s a really fascinating and engaging read. I realise I am most likely preaching to the converted here but just in case you haven’t yet bought a copy for all of your carol-loving friends, here’s the link: https://francisboutle.co.uk/products/hark/.

Bolingey: https://www.facebook.com/carmen.hunt.94/videos/10156191214791320


(A.K.A. Ilkely Moor Baht’at). The Yorkshire tune! Or – I should say – one of the Yorkshire tunes, although not originally from Yorkshire. It was written by Thomas Clark, a cobbler from from Canterbury in 1805 but became better known as the tune to Ilkely Moor Baht’at. Thanks Janet for sending me this version by the Stamford Bridge Singers which also has a quick tutorial at the start for singing along (in case you haven’t picked up the words by now!): https://youtu.be/pf90SQPBgGA


A popular tune from the Sheffield pub singing tradition, written by William Marsh of Canterbury (another Kent tune that has travelled north). Apparently this is a good one for bobbing up and down to, particularly the chorus – I haven’t found a video with a demonstration (there is a pub version on YouTube from the Royal Hotel, Dungworth but the singers look a little wary of the camera) so feel free to improvise! Here it is sung at a sprightly pace by Cairn Chorus: https://youtu.be/lo2klN02NPk


You’ll recognise this one, I expect. But here’s a beautiful contemporary arrangement by Brother Sea which I wanted to share today firstly because it’s really lovely, but also because they have another Christmas single coming out today to raise money for homeless charity Shelter – check them out on Facebook when you’ve listened to this: https://youtu.be/3Ja2gsAHib8


Another Cornish tune – this time spliced with a hymn written for a lost daughter. “We’ll Never Say Goodbye” was written by John H. Tenney in 1889 with lyrics by Anzentia Chapman, you can hear the whole hymn sung by the Walnut Tree Church of Christ in 2013: https://youtu.be/X4JvNY4vR80. In Boscastle Jack, the chorus of the hymn is interspersed with the verses of While Shepherds Watched to a nice jig tune which I learnt from Frances Bennett, backstage at a Bagas Crowd gig at St Mawes. You should really hear the Boscastle Buoys sing this, in Boscastle – maybe another year – in the meantime, here it is on Souncloud, sung by Glaswegian harmony singers Muldoon’s Picnic: https://soundcloud.com/muldoonspicnic/boscastle-jack 


The shape note tune for While Shepherds Watched, written by Daniel Read. Here’s a recording by Alan Lomax, one of the key collectors & preservers of American folk tradition, of singers at the Holly Springs Sacred Harp Convention in 1982. They begin with singing the notes and then kick in to the lyrics after that. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rT7GkureYiE 

For a less shape-notey but still very lovely version, here it is sung by Quire Cleveland in 2010: https://youtu.be/fIGpydEwwes


Yep. According to Ralph Vaughan Williams, who wrote in the Oxford Book of Carols: ‘This carol, which is better known as a hymn because of its inclusion in all the hymnals, is here printed for the sake of the traditional tune proper to the words’. So there you have it. It’s rather like a major version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, as demonstrated here in an instrumental version by Craig Duncan with a brief ‘While Shepherds’ in the middle: https://youtu.be/UiB8Nf84P5M

And here it is sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with ‘Noel, Noel’ casually thrown over the top in a manner reminiscent of RVW’s own Fantasia on Christmas Carols: https://youtu.be/Ke6r6YyvdSE


A jolly tune from the Sheffield carol tradition, sung in village pubs in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire. Not to be confused with the version of While Shepherds Watched collected by Lucy Broadwood in Liverpool, which is different… anyway here is the better-known Liverpool tune, sung by Coope, Boyes & Simpson on their 2006 album Voices At The Door, with Fi Fraser, Jo Freya and Georgina Boyes: https://youtu.be/sKGg-MhjKEo

If you’re up for a long listen, there’s a fascinating episode of the Folk on Foot podcast all about the Sheffield carols which also includes the Liverpool tune to While Shepherds: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/folk-on-foot/id1413850820?i=1000459459259


(A.K.A. THE MOON SHINES BRIGHT, or THE WAITS CAROL). This one’s a bit unusual for While Shepherds Watched – a minor melody. The Waits Carol was very popular in the 19th century, it was commonly printed in broadsides and folk song collectors found it throughout the midlands and the south of England. There are other tunes as well for the words to the Wait’s Carol, it all gets a bit convoluted but anyway here it is with the lyrics for While Shepherds, sung by Nashville Early Music Ensemble in 2008: https://youtu.be/L8l2YRZZLNk


(A.K.A YOU CAN SING IT TO ANYTHING) As it’s a Sunday… Judith, I heard this and thought of you… The lyrics for While Shepherds Watched are in common metre which means it fits to many tunes, including this one: The Archers / Barwick Green: https://youtu.be/ZiMjuyCqIa4

Here are two more bonus entries in the same category: 

While Shepherds Watched sung to ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, performed here by Geoff Rodgers: https://youtu.be/kIbZPdqkz4w

While Shepherds Watched sung to ‘The Laughing Policeman’, sung in appropriately jovial fashion by Trigg Morris: https://youtu.be/Btb3gV_SEJ4 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the lyrics will sound good sung to anything, but there does seem to be a fair chance that someone will give it a go! Someone also mentioned Pinball Wizard… over to folks if you want to experiment – or those tune writers among you who struggle to write lyrics…

[Additional entries in the comments included a splendid rendition from Neil and Hilary to the tune of Yellow Submarine and this version from Cathy and friends splicing 5 different tunes including House of the Rising Sun: https://www.facebook.com/shooting.roots/videos/818632148585545]


Another Cornish tune! I am delighted to be able to share this version of the Pendeen tune for While Shepherds Watched, recorded by Hilary & Sally at The Dock Inn, Penzance on their travels researching Hark! The Glad Sound of Cornish Carols. Thanks very much to Hilary for this video. I honestly didn’t set up this whole thing as a plug for their book but it is brilliant and even a short, fun project like mine relies on people like them and others who research, record and generously share their tradition with others, as well as those who keep the songs flowing and the traditions alive. Anyway – it’s a really lovely version and I’m glad to be able to share it with you here: https://youtu.be/S81jWWZDxFs


(A.K.A ‘O for a thousand tongues – the tune that is not Lyngham!). Composed by Thomas Phillips (1735-1807), a brushmaker from Bristol. He seems to have been something of a one-hit wonder but for bonus listening here’s the Hilliard Ensemble singing one of his lesser-known works, Crows in a Cornfield (not wanting to spoil the plot but sample lyrics include: “don’t go there – why not? – You’ll be shot” – give it a whirl, it is quite funny: https://youtu.be/G_YDV13bM0U)

Diversions aside, here’s your daily dose of While Shepherds in an excellent rendition by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band, with thanks to Dave for checking the sleeve notes so I could track down the composer. https://youtu.be/EiWQCIfAnVA

16. No. 6

This is one of my favourites of the new-to-me tunes I have found recently, gloriously sung here by Waterson:Carthy (plus Jim Causley & others) on their CD Holy Heathens And The Old Green Man. Martin Carthy writes: ‘Jim Eldon taught us this version of While Shepherds Watched their flocks over the telephone and it’s one of the songs from a large collection of East Riding songs which have come his way over the last thirty to forty years.’ https://youtu.be/5DGK-7ZdiTw 

Waterson:Carthy just call it ‘While Shepherds Watched’, but the tune sounds broadly similar to this one from Kate Rusby’s 2019 album Holly Head called ‘No. 6‘: https://youtu.be/OBMaTQVzyW0. See what you think – maybe it’s different enough to be a whole other tune, or maybe it’s the same tune and the changes are just the folk process in action.


(A.K.A LAST LOVELY MORNING). This version is perhaps less well-known (and sung by performers we’ve already heard – YouTube searches for Trumps unfortunately resulted only in Donalds so I haven’t yet found any other recordings), so I’ll just tell you that the song is from the Derbyshire carol tradition and has the familiar lyrics interspersed with the chorus for an anonymously-written hymn tune ‘The Last Lovely Morning’. For more info you’ll need to buy The Derbyshire Book of Village Carols by Ian Russell (http://www.villagecarols.org.uk/publications/derbyshire-book.html) but in the mean time, enjoy this version sung by Muldoon’s Picnic: https://soundcloud.com/muldoonspicnic/mighty-trump?in=muldoonspicnic/sets/dent-folk-carols-festival-2018 

It’s also my last lovely morning in the office (at home) so from this point onwards regular listeners may perhaps be on their second coffee before the tune appears  


The Padstow tune. They like a good sing in Padstow – we’ve heard a lot of fugueing so far in the countdown but this one takes it to another level! I haven’t found a recording sung in Padstow but here it is sung by Stanchester Quire from Somerset (thanks Jeff Lewis for sending me this one): https://youtu.be/Z9TLSlBDR2U 


(A.K.A. BURDETT). Another well-loved tune among the Sheffield carollers, written by John Foster, a county coroner from Ecclesfield. This one seems as popular in the concert-hall as in the pub – I had a pub version bookmarked but it is no longer available on YouTube! So instead here it is with trumpets and drums performed by The Taverner Consort: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaOz1w0ZVJA 

And for those of you who like just the singing, here it is sung unaccompanied by Magpie Lane: https://youtu.be/bAqa1KTGZE0


There are carol traditions all over the UK – I don’t think I will have time to visit the Gloucestershire and Somerset carols, but here is a tune from Otford in Kent. It is credited to Michael Beesly (1700–ca.1758) though he also published a compilation of inharmonious hymn tunes (probably written by a variety of composers and including some of his own works) which led Nicholas Temperley to conclude that “Beesly … was not in control of his harmony, and did not know how his music would sound“! The Otford tune sounds harmonious to me. It would have been part of the West Gallery tradition – the church band of village musicians who would have played for congregations before the widespread introduction of the organ. It is sung here by Immanuels Ground Quire from Warwickshire: https://youtu.be/-cEwYCU0kRY


Here is another cheerful version with additional bells, to ring in the turning of the year and the return of the light. Hail Chime On is quite well known in the Sheffield carol tradition – Kate Rusby, queen of the Christmas folk album, does a lovely version but here below it is sung by my new Christmas favourites Coope Boyes & Simpson: https://youtu.be/y96uNA30NQ0


No matter how many tunes there are, there is always room for one more! So for a complete change of atmosphere, here are two beautiful contemporary arrangements:

The first by Owain Parks (he studied with John Rutter, maybe you can hear the influence) from I think 2011, performed by pupils at Wells Cathedral School: https://youtu.be/lPLTXqckwa8

And the second by Craig Courtney (I think in 2013), performed by a cast of thousands: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kk_xemshEo


Here’s one for Tom Bawcock’s Eve – this is the Newyln tune for While Shepherds Watched, arranged by Richard John Maddern Williams and sung by Mousehole Male Voice Choir: https://youtu.be/KHEYY5myKxI 

With thanks again to Hark! for the research that helped me track this down (and which also has some lovely memories of the early days of MMVC gathering in a loft above the fish-curing tanks). And also with thanks to all who, like Tom Bawcock, go out to work in dangerous circumstances to protect the rest of us.


(A.K.A. GRIMSBY, or O FOR A THOUSAND TONGUES (the tune that is not Lyngham or Lydia!)). Ok it is just the name that made me save this one til Christmas Eve but it is still a good tune! It’s from Coal Aston in Derbyshire and is also sung at Foolow, another village nearby with a strong carolling tradition. The tune was written by S.L.Armitage, of whom I know nothing else whatsoever so let’s cut straight to the music, sung here by the Coal Aston carollers on the CD English Village Carols: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prYotxWInEU


I have had the privilege of attending carols at King’s in person (twice, in fact). Here is the familiar, traditional (ha!) Old Winchester tune attributed to George Kirbye and published in Este’s ‘The Whole Book of Psalmes’ in 1592, included here because Carols from King’s has become part of my Christmas tradition. Even if I now know that many of the other tunes for While Shepherds are more fun. https://youtu.be/IgYzJDxxzN8

Merry Christmas one and all – Nadelik Lowen, kowethesow kernewek!


This countdown would have been much more difficult without the excellent resources of:

And of course, to your wonderful selves who have liked, commented, enjoyed (or otherwise) and encouraged me on this interminable journey shepherding tunes into a long list.


26. Seriously this is the last one. I just really like this tune and we all need more Christmas bells, surely. https://youtu.be/XeYv-4NmW68

For those of you who, unbelievably, have not yet tired of this, here are some more tunes I found that for various reasons didn’t make the list. Legend has it that there are more than 300 tunes, so there will be many more out there in the wild than I can list here, but for what it’s worth, here are a handful more:

  1. MARTINSTOWN: https://fb.watch/2sdJu-_X8P/ 
  2. BETHLEHEM: (no lyrics) https://youtu.be/C__d78Brlu8 
  3. A Gloucestershire Tune: https://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Roy-Palmer-collection/025M-C1023X0118XX-0100V0
  4. LLOYD:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/VillageCarols/permalink/2550865415156383/ (from 3:11)
  5. An Oxfordshire tune collected by Cecil Sharpe from Charles Benfield: https://afolksongaweek.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/week-225-while-shepherds-watched/ 
  6. SHAW LANE (Todmorden): https://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Reg-Hall-Archive/025M-C0903X0098XX-0500V0 
  7. A MANX TUNE: https://youtu.be/4CXNhbeV31s 
  8. EYTHORNE (Kent): https://youtu.be/FbNRqvr-TAk 
  9. BRADWELL (Derbyshire): https://soundcloud.com/user-807146348/shepherds-flock-bradwell 
  10. FERN BANK: https://youtu.be/QjRZ-hCxLbI 
  11. CRIMOND (A.K.A The Lord’s my shepherd (not the Dibley version)) – again with no lyrics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eji6_VIbUuE

And there are some more at the very bottom of this enormous playlist of everything included so far, where I don’t know what the tune is called: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PL85TMD3sJBpE7yLqT-xz1T08Q6YO5txi0.

Over and out. Thanks all and Merry Christmas.