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Blur Wassailing Song

That time Blur recorded The Wassailing Song

In 1992, Britpop band, Blur, found time in the studio to record 'The Gloucestershire Wassail'. Here's the story of how it came to pass.

Blur may be seen as a quintessentially British band, but most people would find it hard to link them to traditional music. Comparing them to the Kinks, perhaps, makes some sense – possibly even Music Hall during their Parklife pomp – but anything older than that? Not likely.

And yet, the leap is not as great as you might think. In 1992, they released a limited edition, single-sided 7-inch of ‘The Wassailing Song’, attributed to the fictitious band Gold, Frankincense and Blur.

Here’s how this fascinating little tradfolk curio came to pass.

How did Blur come to record ‘The Wassailing Song’?

Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon met as school children attending Stanway Comprehensive School, Essex. Their natural musical talents were nurtured by music teacher, Nigel Hildreth, and it was during his lessons in the early 1980s that they were introduced to ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail’ [Roud 209], a traditional Yuletide song that their class was encouraged to sing.

Scroll forward a decade and we find Blur in difficulties. Struggling to follow up top 10 single, ‘There’s No Other Way’, their debut album Leisure received mixed reviews (“it could not shake off the odour of anticlimax”, wrote journalist, John Harris). Crippling debt, a disastrous US tour, and the low-charting of band favourite, ‘Popscene’, hastened their decline. By mid-1992, the music press had all but written them off.

A change of direction was needed. The band knuckled down to recording their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, a collection of songs that Albarn described as, “pursuing this English ideal”, and during a lull in the sessions that produced ‘For Tomorrow’, this little gem emerged.

Perhaps harking back to simpler times, their version of ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail’ or ‘The Wassailing Song’, as Blur would come to release it, had a schoolboy charm to it. Each member sings a portion of the song (indeed, it’s the only Blur recording to feature the vocals of drummer Dave Rowntree) over a simple tom-tom and drone backing. Lasting just under three and a half minutes, it’s arguably the folkiest thing the band ever recorded, although Graham Coxon celebrated the influences of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch on his 2009 solo album, The Spinning Top, and Damon Albarn talked of similar folk explorations during the creation of his 2011 opera, Doctor Dee.

While it may seem inconsequential, it’s a great example of English traditional song combined with the ancient landscape to create something weirdly intoxicating – something that harks back to folk-horror films such as The Wicker Man.

Listen to our podcast on ‘The Wassailing Song’ here.

Did Blur ever perform ‘The Wassailing Song’ live?

Although there are no documented live performances of ‘The Wassailing Song’, the recording was used to soundtrack the Stonehenge sequence of Starshaped, a road documentary released in 1993. Taking a vaguely psychedelic form, the 2-minute clip follows Blur as they circle the Stonehenge monument, commenting that, “this is not real”, and that, “it’s a bit like going to see Morrissey… not as big as you thought.” They also encounter a woman, “dousing for energies”, before getting back on their bus and continuing down the A303.

The limited-edition single was given away on December 15th, 1992, after Blur’s gig at the Hibernian Club in Fulham. 500 copies were pressed, although an eye-witness report explains that a Liverpudlian man dressed as Father Christmas was given the job of handing them out, and was very quickly overwhelmed. Many of the records were trampled on, instantly reducing the number circulating among fans 30 years later. Copies are currently changing hands on Discogs for around £210.

Where was ‘The Wassailing Song’ collected?

Blur’s version of ‘The Wassailing Song’ is better known in traditional music circles as ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail’. It is archived in the Roud Index as Roud 209. The song was popular among wassailing processions commonly undertaken during the 12 days of Christmas. Not sure what we’re talking about? You can read our article on wassailing here.

Although many Blur websites claim that the song is of medieval origin, historians date it back to the 18th century. It may, of course, be older, but there is no known record of it being sung before then.

A version was printed in the snappily-titled, A Collection of National English Airs Consisting of Ancient Song Ballad & Dance Tunes, Interspersed with Remarks and Anecdote, and Preceded by an Essay of English Minstrelsy, which was published by London:Chappell in 1838.

Folk song collector, Sabine Baring-Gould, collected a version in Cornwall in 1877. The Vaughan Williams Memorial Society mentions many further sightings of the song in the wild on their website.

Which verses of ‘The Wassailing Song’ do each member of Blur sing?

The lyrics to ‘The Wassailing Song’, and the order in which they are sung, are as follows:

Full band
Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our toast, it is white and our ale, it is brown
Our bowl, it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

Damon Albarn
So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef
And a good piece of beef that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

Full band
And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie
And a good Christmas pie that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

Graham Coxon
So here is to Broad Mary and to her broad horn
May God send our master a good crop of corn
And a good crop of corn that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

Full band
And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year
And a happy New Year as e’er he did see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

Dave Rowntree
And here is to Colly and to her long tail
Pray God send our master he never may fail
A bowl of strong beer, I pray you draw near
And our jolly wassail, it’s then you shall hear

Full band
Come, butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down will take butler, bowl and all

Alex James
Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slid back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in

Full band
Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee