Continuing on in our series of Christmas carols, it’s ‘Ding dong! merrily on high’, one of our personal favourites! Its first appearance (words only) was in George Ratcliffe Woodward‘s Carols for Yule-tide (privately printed, Highgate Village, 1922):
Traditionally, the first edition of ‘Ding dong! merrily on high’ (and ‘Past three a clock’) have been ascribed to The Cambridge Carol Book (1924), but in fact the words for both carols appeared here for the first time, privately printed here by Woodward himself in 108 copies. ‘It was not until he was in his seventies that Woodward turned to printing, setting up his presses in an upstairs room in the house at 48 West Hill, Highgate Village, to which he had removed in 1916, after a lifetime’s work in the Church. Between 1922 and 1931 he printed more than thirty small booklets, carols, epigrams, translations, and original work. At first sight pedestrian pieces, they were nevertheless well printed, and worth much closer study for their content … His texts were a curious mixture of Christian and pagan verse … Collections of carols and religious poems formed the content of most of the pamphlets during his first four years as a printer, but translations from the Greek then absorbed his energies’ (David Chambers, ‘G. R. Woodward, parson and printer’, The Private Library, Winter 1995, pp. 181, 186–7).
The first appearance of the carol with music was not until two years later, when Woodward teamed up with the composer Charles Wood to publish The Cambridge Carol-Book being fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter, and other Seasons (London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; New York, Macmillan Co., 1924):
While the music to ‘Ding dong! merrily on high’ ‘may seem to be the most traditional of carols, it is anything but. The tune is a dance in the Orchésographie (1588, 1596) of “Thoinot Arbeau” [i.e. Jehan Tabourot], an invaluable record of sixteenth-century music and choreography. It is just the kind of tune to which the French would add a Noël text, but for some reason it was left to an Englishman (Woodward) and an Ulsterman (Wood) to turn it into a carol. Any good tune was grist to their mill as they combed the European past for material to set beside what seemed to them the limited supply of English folk carols, and despite Woodward’s rather stilted text it has become one of the most popular of all carols’ (Keyte).