Thursday, April 03, 2014

"The Vicar of Bray"

Last night at a Lenten soup supper, the subject of the English Reformation came up (exactly how it came up is a long story), and I was reminded of a song -- I'm always reminded of a song -- so today I looked it up on line and found out more than I'd expected. That always happens, too. The song is "The Vicar of Bray," and it pokes fun at the twists and turns of English ecclastical polity during the 1600s and early 1700s.

Author is unknown. Apparently it circulated widely both under its present title and as "The Religious Turncoat; Or, the Trimming Parson." Wikipedia has the text, with a close reading and annotation. Also, especially of interest to dulcimer players, a JPEG file of the melody -- in D!

(A hat tip BTW to Berkley Moore of Springfield, who has a better ear for Samuel Bayard's tune families than I ever will. Berkley tells the melody is that of "An English Country Garden," the well-known folk song collected by Cecil Sharp and arranged for orchestra -- and high school band! -- by Percy Grainger.

(Somewhere I have DAD tablature from the dulcimer club in Crossville, Tenn. Another long story, involving a rest stop on I-40 during the 4th of July weekend 10 or 15 years ago.)

Richard Dyer-Bennet sings "The Vicar of Bray"

And here's an adaptation that plays too fast-and-loose with history for my taste, but features a tolerable performance of the song in period dress. It's from a 1937 movie set in Ireland during Cromwell's invasion. The first verse is true to the original, but the second invents a ditty about Cromwell.

Says YouTube user Michael Lampett, who posted the clip: "A film version of the tale (The Vicar of Bray) was released in 1937 starring Stanley Holloway as the vicar. In the film, the vicar (of Bray, County Wicklow in Ireland) is given a more positive character and events are placed at a slightly earlier period, during the English Civil War. He successfully protects his parishioners by adopting a diplomatic approach during the turbulent events and secures forgiveness for moderate rebels from the restored Charles II." I wonder if that's making light of Cromwell's reign of terror in Ireland, but I haven't seen the movie. And the clip is kind of fun.

The first verse gives the flavor of the original song:

In good King Charles's golden days,
When Loyalty no harm meant;
A Zealous High-Church man I was,
And so I gain'd Preferment.
Unto my Flock I daily Preach'd,
Kings are by God appointed,
And Damn'd are those who dare resist,
Or touch the Lord's Anointed.
And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!
The song was hugely popular. Not too many years later, it was reworked by Loyalists who supported the British during the American Revolution. Those lyrics (in C) are available on line on the Digital Tradition folk music website. Again, the first verse gives the flavor of the thing:

When royal George ruled o'er this land and loyalty no harm meant
For Church and King I made a stand and so I got preferment
I still opposed all party tricks for reasons I thought clear ones
And swore it was their politics to made us all Presbyterians
And this is the law that I'll maintain until my dying day, sir
That whatsoever King might reign, I'll still be Vicar of Bray, sir

A couple of notes are in order here. The "party tricks" don't refer to fun and games at a social gathering -- political parties were in their infancy, and the word "party" had disreputable, factional connotations. American patriots, to use another word that had *negative connotations at the time, were apt to be Presbyterians or others who did not conform to the Anglican established church. Other than that one reference, however, the American version of the song is wholly political and non-religious.

Sara L. Johnson, perhaps better known as "The Kitchen Musician" for her books and website on early American and Anglo-Celtic folk music, sketches in some history, first in 16th- and 17th-century England:

The vicars of Bray, in Berkshire, have been some of its most interesting characters, apparently all upholding the same principle as the most famous one, Simon Aleyn, of the mid-sixteenth century. “He was a Papist under the reign of Henry VIII, and a Protestant under Edward VI; he was a Papist again under Mary, and once more became a Protestant in the reign of Elizabeth. When this scandal to the gown was reproached for his versatility of religious creeds, and taxed for being a turncoat and an inconstant changeling...he replied, ‘Not so neither, for if I changed my religion, I am sure I kept true to my principle; which is, to live and die the Vicar of Bray.’ ” (He succeeded and is buried there.) The well-known song, however, was written about 1720 in the reign of George I, perhaps by a soldier in Colonel Fuller’s troop of Dragoons, of Dr. Francis Carswell, Vicar of Bray during the reigns of Charles II, James II, William III, Ann, and George I. He was said to have been “an old rich stingy turncoat and a curmudgeon of unsettled head.”
And of the American version:

The subject of the American version is unknown, but may have been the publisher of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, Benjamin Towne, whose newspaper, before, during and after the British occupation espoused the viewpoint of whoever was currently in power.


* "Patriotism having become one of our topicks, [Dr. Samuel] Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: 'Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.' But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest." James Boswell's Life of Johnson April 7, 1775 (1791). Qtd.

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