In parts of Yorkshire they say it's not Christmas until Will Noble sings the Mistletoe Bough. Fiona Russell met him.
William Noble is a man of many parts – and many names. As Will Noble, he has been called one of the last and best of Britain's traditional singers. Among the drystone walling community, however, he is known as Bill Noble, a waller of national and international repute who works with artists such as Andy Goldsworthy.
But in the little lanes around his home village of Shepley, Will is William. "I know William" says a man with the rich, soft accent of this high and remote part of south-west Yorkshire, "but I'm not quite sure where he lives."
I'm directed back onto the main road and the next left turn proves to be the right one. Will's house – where he was born and where he lives once again – was built by his father on land which was once part of his grandfather's farm. The farm has been sold, but Will keeps the house and a bit of land. From his kitchen window, he can see Marsh Hall Farm in Thurstonland, where members of his family farmed in the mid-1600s.
Will began to learn traditional songs 60-odd years ago in the fields that surround his house. "My first recollection of any sort of music that felt special was my Uncle Oliver singing a fragment of The Prickly Bush when I used to ride on the tractor with him. I can only have been two or three years old…. People used to sing as they worked in those days."
As a teenager, driving the tractor himself, Will sang the hits of the 1950s and early 60s. His reaquaintance with traditional singing came in his mid-twenties when a friend who was a whipper-in with the Holme Valley Beagles invited him along to one of the after-hunt sings.
The Beagles hunt hares on foot and the sings took place every Saturday night during the winter in the pub where the hunt had met. "An old chap, Fred Woodcock, usually played the piano, and the huntsman started it off with a hunting song. Usually one person sang at a time, and they each sang a song they had adopted. You almost had to wait until someone passed on before you could sing the one that was theirs."
Will was hooked: "I thought it was fantastic and I went for years." It was also unique. The hunting songs of the Holme and Colne Valleys are particular and highly-valued. Only the Lake District has a similar tradition. However, with the folk revival of the late-Sixties and early Seventies underway, the songs and their singers were beginning to attract attention. Some of the songs were recorded on what is now a celebrated LP called A Fine Hunting Day. Will recalls the recording of the album.
"I'd been going for two or three years by then." He particularly recalls an evening in Upperthong Village Hall. "Just as Arthur Howard was finishing off Pratty Flowers (the local name for the song known as The Holmfirth Anthem), "the table collapsed, and all the drinks and the glasses went everywhere." Undeterred, the producers of the LP kept the background racket of everything hitting the deck in the recording, "they thought it sounded authentic."
It was Arthur Howard who was a key figure in prompting Will in the music. Born in the village of Holme, Arthur was farming sheep at Hazlehead, between Penistone and Holmfirth, when Will first got to know him at the end of the 1960s. He came from a family of singers and musicians. His brother, Jim, was a noted singer and his father, Haigh, played the melodeon. He was the keeper of an extraordinary number of songs – Will reckons about 250.
"I learned a lot from Arthur," Will says. "He knew all the hunting songs." But Arthur's speciality was humorous songs: "he had quite a light voice and he had a great sense of timing. He was a consummate performer."
Arthur's fondness for humour led him to collect all kinds of songs, including the Music Hall, which purists might argue is, or was, commercial entertainment. It raises interesting questions about what constitutes a traditional singer and a traditional song.
Will identifies himself as "as near a traditional singer as you can be today", in so far as he has learned his songs from other traditional singers or recordings of traditional singers.
His is an oral tradition – to his regret, he can't read music – but, as he points out, traditional singers have been augmenting their repertoires by various means for a long time now. "Traditional singers have always got songs from wherever they could – like the radio and the gramophone."
Will reckons his own repertoire stretches to a mere 100 songs, but like Arthur, he chooses songs which suit his voice – a strong baritone – and appeal to him personally. He sings unaccompanied, and uses what he calls his natural voice.
"It's an extension of my speaking voice. I've never consciously changed it when I'm singing." He finds it almost impossible to sing with accompaniment. "It's the key I want to sing in that's the problem. I can never sing in church, the pitch is totally wrong for me."
He concedes this singing has its disadvantages. "It can get a bit wearing for the audience," Will feels, as well as tiring for the singer. It's one of the reasons he likes to perform with his friend John Cocking, who also tells monologues.
The lack of accompaniment, however, means there's an intense focus on the song and its lyrics, and this in Will's hands can be quite disconcerting.
One of his favourites is The Christmas Goose which tells the story of a commercial traveller who stops for the night at an inn in Manchester and seduces a willing chambermaid. He leaves her pregnant and the Christmas Goose she presents him with the following year turns out to be a "fat, bumping child".
"It's an interesting story, with a twist in the tail," says Will, and it's perfect for a singer with a gift for drama.
Will's performance of the song is slow, almost ponderous, drawing the listener into a dark, winter world of mutual exploitation. The man takes his pleasure, the girl takes his money, the man comes back for more, she presents him with the Christmas Goose. The song is funny, but the humour is as black as a winter's night.
And it is Will's love of a good story with a twist of dark drama that makes him the perfect interpreter of that hardy perennial of the Sheffield carolling season, The Mistletoe Bough. "It's just about the one song I do with accompaniment," he says.
Will was asked to join the carollers at the Royal Hotel in Dungworth some years back. Now, he is one of the three soloists. "They were having trouble getting someone to sing The Mistletoe Bough, he says. It's perhaps not difficult to imagine why. The carol tells the story of a young bride who becomes trapped in a wooden chest playing hide-and-seek on Christmas Eve. She is found many years later, a mouldering skeleton. It must be one of the strangest of English Christmas carols. It was first published in the 1830s and is not unique to Yorkshire – great houses from Hampshire to Cornwall have claimed to be the location where the story takes place. But it seems to have a particular appeal to the Yorkshire mind for a variety of reasons.
Will agrees: "It's macabre – very powerful. One chap has to go out when I sing it. But there have been times when the pub's been so crowded he hasn't been able to get to the door. He's been trapped!"
Will, however, welcomes the fact that the pub is packed. "The atmosphere is fantastic, that sheer power."
He has long been a highly respected member of the folk music scene, performing up and down the country and abroad. "I've been to some great places and met some wonderful people. But I never expected anything like it when I first went up to the hunt suppers. I just went because I enjoyed the singing."
See Will Noble perform against a stunning Dales backdrop, at yorkshirepost.co.uk/video
YP MAG 18/12/10