O little town of Bethlehem

Posted on 6th December 2019 by simonbeattie

Yesterday, we featured a carol that first appeared in The English Hymnal (1906). Today is the turn of another beloved carol which appeared for the first time in that book: ‘O little town of Bethlehem’.

The first appearance in print of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’.

This carol owes its origin to the folk song revival of the early twentieth century, which is often twinned with the Arts and Crafts Movement and the rise in popularity of creators like William Morris. Just as Morris was looking to the past for inspiration, so too were English musicians and composers, who keenly collected folk songs from around the British Isles.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) was one such composer who sought to bring traditional folk songs into new contexts: ‘One of the most familiar examples is “The Ploughboy’s Dream”, better known to generations of Christmas carolers as “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. This is one of several folk tune arrangements that Vaughan Williams included in The English Hymnal (1906), for which he served as music editor. It goes by FOREST GREEN in that collection, named after the Surrey village that was home to one Mr. Garman, the labourer from whom Vaughan Williams learned the song’ (British library website). The British Library holds Vaughan Williams’ original manuscript notebook from 1903, when he travelled through rural villages transcribing these folk tunes, including the melody for ‘The Ploughboy’s Dream’/’O little town of Bethlehem’ (Shelfmark: Add MS 54188).

Williams’ 1903 manuscript, containing the tune for ‘The Ploughboy’s Dream’, held by the British Library (Copyright: © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust).
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