A beautiful Christmas carol you’ve probably never heard

December 16, 2011

My favorite musical discovery this year is of an English folk-rock band called Steeleye Span, not to be confused with the much more famous American band Steely Dan. The two bands have nothing in common except for the decade in which they did most of their work.

Regardless, I inherited a box of moldy records from a friend of a friend, who was obviously a fan of the Steeleyes. Now I’m one, too!

While they were mostly unknown on this side of the Atlantic, Steeleye Span were (and remain) beloved on the other side, charting several hits in the early- to mid-’70s, including the subject of today’s post. (Here is their biggest hit, “All Around My Hat,” which is amazing! Four-part harmony that also rocks.) Their success there reflects a quirky difference between British and American popular musical tastes. Britain embraced English folk-rock and Celtic music in a way that we never did.

They were also different from other popular English bands who frequently drew upon the style, like Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull, in that they only performed traditional songs—setting centuries-old Child ballads and other folk music to rock arrangements.

Here’s an a cappella Christmas carol that, believe it or not, was a Top 20 hit in Britain in 1973. Wikipedia tells me that it was one of only three Latin-language songs ever to make the charts.

The English translation is below. (Click to enlarge.) I appreciate the song’s theological richness. May we all “lustily rejoice” this Christmas!

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