Thursday, September 03, 2015

"I Saw Three Ships" -- a carol for the Prairieland Strings' annual Advent supper performance

PLEASE NOTE: First of several posts getting ready for the Clayville-Prairieland Pioneer Academy of Music's annual Advent soup supper performance in December. Technically, I guess it's the second because I posted some YouTube clips of the "Cherry Tree Carol" to the blog last year. But who wants to get technical? (Mountain dulcimer tab in DAA and DAD tunings with guitar chords and lyrics by Ralph Lee Smith and Maddy McNeil available at

Ho ho ho ...

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat ... please put a penny in the old man's hat.

When I was in the choir at Springfield College in Illinois, we'd start practicing Christmas anthems as soon as school began in September. So it feels like it's time for the Clayville-Prairieland Strings folks to start pulling together a holiday program. Atonement Lutheran Church, where we've been meeting, has voted to merge with two other parishes and a lot of details are up in the air, but as far as I know, the new blended parish will still have Advent soup suppers and we'll be invited to play.

If not, we can always find a nursing home. Or just go wassailing. "If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do / If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you!" And there's always the annual Christmas party at Clayville Historic Stagecoach Stop, which has been one of the highlights of the year for us.

We've had a couple of good suggestions already for the Advent program. One is the "Cherry Tree Carol." We sang it last year at Clayville, and there's a lovely southern Appalachian version available online. I'll post more about it soon.

Another Christmas song that we can arrange a little (kind of like we did last year with "Carol of the Bells") is a traditional English carol called "I Saw Three Ships." There's a nice "D-for-dulcimer" lead sheet available here that we can start with:

Let's learn it now, and when we've got it under our belts we can work out entrances, solos, etc.

There's detailed background on the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website, and some of it is fascinating. Check it out sometime. The song has been a cherished part of the English folk music scene for 150 years and more. As usual, Wikipedia has the basics:

"I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)" is a traditional and popular Christmas carol from England. A variant of its parent tune "Greensleeves", the earliest printed version of "I Saw Three Ships" is from the 17th century, possibly Derbyshire, and was also published by William Sandys in 1833.

The lyrics mention the ships sailing into Bethlehem, but the nearest body of water is the Dead Sea about 20 miles (32 km) away. The reference to three ships is thought to originate in the three ships that bore the purported relics of the Biblical magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century. Another possible reference is to Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia, who bore a coat of arms "Azure three galleys argent". Another thought was the three kings that came to baby Jesus.

Plenty of video clips on YouTube. Here's one I especially like:

Trace Adkins and Alyth McCormack - "I Saw Three Ships" -- at the CMA Country Christmas concert in 2013. She's singing Scots Gaelic in the first verse.

Other YouTube clips, ranging from Paddy Maloney and the Chieftans, the King's College Cambridge boys' choir, the folk rock duo Blackmore's Night, pianist Jon Schmidt, Nat King Cole and a mind-blowing session guitarist from the U.K. named Robbie McIntosh, that might give us ideas we might want to adapt, steal or ignore altogether:

But where would the three ships dock?

Here is a picture of the actual landscape today around Bethlehem, which is located in the hills of Judea and surrounded by upland desert. Buildings in the background are a gated Israeli "settlement" in the occupied territories.

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