The Sussex Carol

I’ve always loved the joyous melodies and merry themes of carols. Take a little look at the history of the carol, which dates back to the 13th or 14th century, and you’ll find that carols were originally associated with dancing and lyrically less somber than hymns. Though carols were popular up through the 16th century, many carols were later banned and fell into decline after Christmas itself was abolished in England by the Puritan Parliament in the mid-17th century. In fact, no new carols were published in England for 150 years.

Fortunately, there was a great revival of the British carols in the Victorian era (in the first part of the 19th century), including the publication of new collections of the old songs and carols. And so, this is where our brief history lesson ends, and our guitar lesson begins.

One carol that has always caught my ear is The Sussex Carol (also known as On Christmas Night All Christians Sing). The words were originally published in 1684 by Irish bishop Luke Wadding in a collection titled Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs. The words and melody sung today were collected in the early 20th century (1919) by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who heard it sung by Harriet Verrall at Monk’s Gate in Sussex.

My arrangement is in standard tuning and offers few technical challenges. This tune is normally notated in 6/4, but I found 6/8 a little more readable when writing it out for guitar. The thumb plays the bass notes on the downbeats (beats one and four in each measure). I bar two I play the F# on beat six with my thumb, but you could also play it with your index finger. In bar nine, there’s a quick switch to 9/8, which moves back to 6/8 in the following measure.

The Sussex Carol 1
The Sussex Carol 2
The Sussex Carol 3
Copyright notice

I hope to post a few more lessons in the coming weeks featuring Victorian carols, so I hope you have enjoyed this tune as much as I have.