The Folk Carol Service
Every year since 1978 something very unusual happens in Leigh-on-Sea,
To most people of this day and age a "traditional carol service" is one with
nine lessons (read from the King James version of the Bible), lots of hymns
(most of them Victorian or Edwardian), angelic choirboys and organ accompaniment.
To lovers of folk music both "traditional" and "carol" mean something quite
different. Something which is traditional was composed or written by the
common folk of the time, not the skilled musicians; it would rarely have
been written down, instead being preserved by each generation learning the
tune and words by hearing them being sung - the "oral tradition" - and the
name of the original author or composer has long since been forgotten. A
carol was based upon dance music, and the Christmas carols would have been
played by the local dance band in the church gallery.
So every year the local dance band (the Famous Potatoes) gather to play genuine
traditional folk carols. A congregation of 150 and more somehow or other managed to crowd
in to the fishermen's church of New Road Methodist in Leigh's old town -
at least until health and safety reasons meant that we had to move! So we have moved "up the hill",
from 2005-7 in Wesley
Methodist Church, and since 2008 in St Clement's Church,
Leigh-on-Sea. From 2005 onwards the service has attracted more people year on year,
regularly between 200 and 250.
The leader, and the person who had the idea to hold these services,
is Professor Kenneth MacKinnon, a Methodist local preacher brought up in
Leigh-on-Sea. He is a former mayor of Southend-on-Sea and is Visiting Professor
Emeritus Reader in Sociology of Language at the University of Hertfordshire.
He also runs Sgrùd
Research, a Gaelic language research unit, from his home base in Ferintosh
on the Black Isle north of Inverness, Scotland.
Prof. Ken MacKinnon
Ken researches old material and regularly comes up with something that no-one's
ever sung before - we've had at least two world premieres of carols at the
Folk Carol Service! Paul McDowell ("The Prof" of the
Famous Potatoes) arranges the
music and Paul
and Ken have compiled a Book of Folk Carols, which came out in time for the 2004
service - see details to the right.
As well as the carols, there have been enactions by
Peter Monk involving juggling and fire-eating; singing and playing by other
local folk groups; and readings.
In 2009 BBC Radio 2 recorded the service, together
with interviews with some of the participants, for the final part in a
series of half-hour programmes on Keeping Tradition Alive at Christmas,
the Leigh-on-Sea edition being broadcast on Christmas Eve. A snippet of
that programme is still lurking at an out-of-the-way corner on the BBC
News website at this
location (navigate two thirds of the way down the page and click on
the music clip "Some of the 'patchwork quilt' of carols in Leigh on
Sea"). It's the Honeygales singing the first two verses of 'Ane Sang
of the Birth of Christ'.
The 2013 service took place at St Clement's Church,
Broadway, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, SS9 2BZ, at 6.30 pm on Sunday 15 December.
The next service will probably be on Sunday 14 December 2014. Come along and experience something totally different.
December 2011 we heard the sad news of the death of John Coppins who sang Cherry Tree Carol part 1, Sunny Bank and Padstow Farewell Shanty in
the service since the beginning, and was in fine voice singing them at the
service only a few days before. We miss him dreadfully. In the 2012
service Kiti Theobald sang Cherry Tree Carol part 1 and Kiti and Roy Brown
led the singing of the Padstow Farewell Shanty in John's memory. A
memorial CD of John's singing is available.
Coppins 1940 – 2011
the early days of Southend Folk Club, when so many of the regular singers
were learning their trade, John Coppins first began to sing in the Folk
Clubs of The Sixties. His voice was a strong tenor with a fine
vibrato, and as his repertoire increased, so did his following.
grandfather was a railwayman, and John himself was a lifelong member of
the Railway Society, with a deep and abiding love and knowledge of all
railway memorabilia, and an ability to remember tales of the old
railwaymen and songs of the railways for all occasions. John
never worked on the railway himself; instead he worked in the Civil
Service for many years, enjoying railways through research and journeys by
train. During the last few years he acted as librarian for the
Railway Society archives, a task he undertook with great pleasure.
pleasure in singing took him to all the clubs in Southend as a regular
singer and he was a regular visitor to Chelmsford Folk Club. He
branched out into singing at non-folk venues, bringing his songs and
stories to a wide and varying audience. He also became a regular
contributor to the Folk Carol Service, held in Leigh-on-sea each year.
will always be remembered for the sincerity which was an integral part of
everything he did. Whether he was singing “Old Brown’s
Daughter”, a tongue-in-cheek song of rural romance - …’she makes me
feel so galvanised!..’, or “The Bargeman’s Alphabet”, naming the
parts of the old barges in rhyme – ‘…there’s none so blithe as a
bargeman at sea!..’, he would always tell you a little about the song
and the singer from whom he had learnt it, only rarely ‘fluffing’ the
words of a song and always making a quick recovery. He encouraged
other performers, always gave sincere praise where it was due and listened
carefully to all the different variations of songs.
last evening was spent in the company of friends, both old and new, and
all listened intently as he sang ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ to suit the
festive season, and to ‘I’d like to be a Lengthman’ by Dave Goulder,
as he has sung it many times before, gently and with great sincerity.
are many who will miss this gentle man, and his singing of both
traditional and modern songs. Our condolences go to his family and
friends in the different spheres of his life.
Details of the most recent services:
2013 Folk Carol Service
2012 Folk Carol Service
2011 Folk Carol Service
2010 Folk Carol Service
2009 Folk Carol Service
2008 Folk Carol Service
2007 Folk Carol Service
2006 Folk Carol Service
2005 Folk Carol Service
2004 Folk Carol Service
2003 Folk Carol Service
2002 Folk Carol Service
2001 Folk Carol Service
2000 Folk Carol Service
1999 Folk Carol Service
1998 Folk Carol Service
(includes some links to non-copyright carols and those for which the copyright
is owned by MacKinnon & McDowell).
Book of Folk Carols
collection of the carols sung at the annual Folk Carol Service at Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, over more than 25 years.
contains over 50 “traditional carols”, in the true sense of
both words – composed by the common folk of the time and
passed on from one generation to another by hearing, learning
and changing over the years, and based upon dance music played
by the local band.
McDowell and Professor Kenneth MacKinnon have researched
manuscripts, tunes and many other old items over a long period.
You will find several carols which have probably never been sung
outside Leigh-on-Sea for hundreds of years, along with some old
favourites. The carols come complete with tunes and freshly
written accompaniments for you to sing and play on piano, guitar
or with your own dance band!
is illustrated by Kate Baxter and was published by Writersworld in
December 2004 at £7.99
via all bookshops - or direct from Paul
McDowell Musical Services. A sample carol is given below,
together with Kate's illustration that goes with it.
2009 BBC Radio 2 broadcast seven of these carols in the fourth and final part of
their series Keeping Tradition Alive at Christmas, together with
interviews with Ken and Paul and some striking singing from John Coppins,
Jon Boden and the Honeygales (singing one of Paul's other traditional
2011 the book was reprinted with minor corrections and an afterword giving
brief details of what's been happening since the first edition was
Book of Folk Carols
King Herod and
There was a star in David’s land,
so bright it did appear
into King Herod’s chamber,
and brightly it shined there.
The wise men soon espied it,
and told the king
a princely babe was born that night
no king could
“If this be true”, King Herod said,
“as thou hast
told to me,
this roasted cock that lies in the dish
shall crow full
The cock soon thrustened and feathered well
by the work of
God’s own hand,
and he did crow full fences three
in the dish where
he did stand.
is the version found in the Oxford Book of Carols, as
collected from the singing of Mrs Plumb of Armscote,
Worcestershire. There are much longer versions and it was
reported of John Kirkpatrick that he was “familiar with all 30