Jon Boden, “Rudolph …”: A Folk Song a Day, December 2014

What happens when an English folk singer (born in Chicago!) arranges “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in the style of a Yorkshire pub carol to the tune of an early New England anthem? Sacred Harp singers will recognize it as NORTHFIELD (“How long, dear Savior, O how long …”), a peppy choral piece by a contemporary of William Billings’.

If I can transpose it to D in time, I hope to try it out at I wasn’t able to transpose it to “D for dulcimer” (it’s easier just to learn it by ear on the hammered dulcimer). But it can still be an inspiration for our Clayville-Prairieland slow jam and tune learning sessions in December:

  • Saturday Dec. 1, Clayville Historic Site, State Highway 125, Pleasant Plains, 10:00 to ????? at Clayville’s annual Christmas party.
  • Tuesday, Dec. 4, Hickory Glen Apartments, 1700 W. Washington, Springfield, 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, Dec. 20, Hickory Glen. Play at 6 (we’re doing some Christmas carols for the residents), if possible arrive a few minutes early.

Jon Boden, the singer from whom I heard this version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” got it from the Bacca Pipes Folk Club in Yorkshire, where amateur singers still gather in pubs at Christmastime to sing full-throated vernacular choral arrangements of carols like “When Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.”

Boden is originally from Chicago, but he studied at the University of Durham, in the North of England, and has lived there for many years. He’s mastered the vernacular harmonies of English folk musicHe included it on Dec. 22, 2014, in a yearlong project called A Folk Song A Day.

“The surprises keep coming,” said a collaborator in the Folk Song A Day project, who wrote the commentary for the online collection. “Just when I was getting ready for the familiar, cheesy jolly-along, this! As Jon explains, ‘Possibly the finest example of “one song to the tune of another” ever devised …’.”

No matter what you think about a cheesy, familiar song like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” play Bolton’s version at the head of this post. After you hear it, you’ll never think of poor Rudolph the same way again.

Bolton’s tune is by Jeremiah Ingalls, a New England singing master who composed several anthems in a vernacular choral style closely related to the English antecedents of today’s Christmas pub singers in Yorkshire. Other vernacular tunesmiths included William Billings of Boston, who is regarded as America’s first choral composer, and Oliver Holden, whose tune CORONATION (“All hail the power of Jesus’ name”) is still sung today.

Ingalls’ tune, known as NORTHFIELD, is in the Sacred Harp, today’s most widely used shape-note tunebook, and it is a favorite at shape-note singing conventions. (So is CORONATION.) The full-throated style of traditional Sacred Harp singing is considered a lineal descendent of a vernacular style common to Great Britain and New England alike in Ingalls’ day.

To hear the original version of NORTHFIELD as Ingalls wrote it, scroll down to the bottom of this post. The video shows the Southwest Sacred Harp Singing Convention, May 28, 2011, in McMahan, Texas.

According to a family genealogy, Ingalls “was a cooper by trade and a singing master by profession.” He lived from 1764 to 1838. Ingalls, according to the genealogy, “was mainly self-taught, possessed a sweet and powerful tenor voice and great aptness in teaching vocal music as it was taught in those days.” Included in a 1902 local history, it preserves this story.:

Concerning the production of “Northfield,” the following anecdote is preserved: Returning from fishing one rainy day, he laid down before the fire to get dry, and impatient at the slow progress of dinner began to sing a parody to a well-known hymn:

“How long, my people, Oh! How long
Shall Dinner hour delay?
Fly swifter round, ye idle maids,
And bring a dish of tea.”

“Why, Jerry,” said his wife, “that’s a grand tune.” So it is,” replied the man of song; “I’ll write it down.” And dinner waited the completion of “Northfield.”


Hill Grimmett, “Jeremiah Ingalls — American Composer,” Sacred Harp Colorado, 2005

Frederic Palmer Wells, History of Newbury, Vermont: From the Discovery of the Coös Country to Present Time. With Genealogical Records of Many Families (Newbury: Caledonian Company, 1902). 581.

Sacred Harp 155 How Long, Dear Savior (Northfield) HD


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