Wednesday, December 4, 2013

sow's ear to silk purse?

You can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.  It is arguable that Peter Warlock and Bruce Blunt did exactly that in 1927, when they took an alcoholic craving for a brain-numbing bender and turned it into one of the loveliest and holiest carols of the season, Bethlehem Down.

Philip Heseltine was born in 1894 at the Savoy Hotel, London, where his parents happened to be living at the time. His life pretty well exemplifies what happens when a narcissistic artistic personality is allowed free rein both intellectually and morally, and provided with plenty of money to indulge his every whim. With his Bohemian circle of friends, he explored magic and the occult; inspired by the invocation of demons, he changed his name to Peter Warlock. He achieved a certain degree of notoriety in the neighborhood by riding his motorbike stark naked; he was banned from numerous establishments when the wild parties he hosted turned destructive. He had extravagant affairs with partners of either sex, often more than one at a time.  If a pregnancy resulted, his habitual solution was to slip the girl a fiver (£5) for an abortion.

Read on, read on, the worst is behind us now.

In 1927, the money ran out; he and his long-time soul mate Bruce Blunt were looking with dismay at a "dry" Christmas Eve.  As Blunt recalled: "In December 1927, we were both extremely hard up, and, in the hope of being able to get suitably drunk at Christmas, conceived the idea of collaborating on another carol." (The Daily Telegraph newspaper, remarkably enough, ran an annual carol-writing competition with a substantial cash prize. Substantial enough, that is, to get two grown men absolutely blotto.)

Blunt continues: "So, walking on a moonlit night between the Plough at Bishop's Sutton and the Anchor at Ropley,  I thought of the words of 'Bethlehem Down'. I sent them off to Philip in London, the carol was completed in a few days and published in The Daily Telegraph on Christmas Eve. We had an immortal carouse on the proceeds and decided to call ourselves 'Carols Consolidated'."
 for Yeats, Robert Nichols (a friend), the Elizabethans (especially Shakespeare) and, at the end of his life, Bruce Blunt. A strong Celtic affinity caused him to study Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Manx and B   ton.  for Yeats, Robert Nichols (a friend), the Elizabethans (especially Shakespear and, at the end of his life, Bruce Blunt. A strong Celtic affinity caused him to study Cornish, Welsh, Irish,Here are the words:
"When He is King we will give Him the King's gifts:
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes, said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.

"Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight,
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music,
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

"When He is King, they will clothe Him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

"Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music,
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem Down."

 Gorgeous, are they not?
And here, sung to perfection by King's College, Cambridge, is the winning carol:

Sounds like a silk purse to me . . . how about you?


  1. Given the spurious authors and their questionable motivation, it's difficult for me to appreciate this carol. My personal favorite King's College Cambridge performance of a carol is "Once in David's Royal City."
    Plus, the author has a more suitable back story for a solemn and worshipful carol. Just sayin...

  2. You are so right, mr. boyce - once in royal david's city cannot be beat.
    i just find the discrepancies between agents and results to be utterly amazing. sort of like discovering that schubert was an alcoholic syphilitic . . . oh, wait a minute . . .

    (suggestion: forget everything i wrote and listen to bethlehem down de novo)