The Glen Rock Carolers
"Begin &Never Cease "
by Linda J. Morris
If you're going to end up in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, you need to try very hard to do so. The small borough, rising up almost vertically from the banks of the South Branch Codorus Creek, isn't really on the way to or from anyplace in particular. Yet for more than a century, thousands have found their way to this unlikely destination on Christmas Eve. They come every year, in spite of the winter freeze, pouring rain, or blizzard conditions, to follow the Glen Rock Carolers as they walk the hills from midnight to the dawn of Christmas day singing their age-old Yuletide greetings in the sojourn that takes them to every street of the village. Fifty men, dressed in old-English great coats and high hats, perform with a robust, three-part vocal style that can be heard drifting in the air as families prepare to greet them (and feed them) along the way. Thus, the tradition of Glen Rock's carol singers, which began humbly in 1848, has continued unbroken to this day, 152 years later.
Newcomers to the town are quickly drawn into the enchantment of the street concerts. Former mayor Donald Swartz recalls when he and his wife moved to Glen Rock in 1984, having bought their dream fixer-upper, a gingerbread Victorian overlooking the town. On one of their first Christmases, they were serenaded at three o'clock Christmas morning.
"It was a cold night and very quiet," Swartz said, "and we'd been waiting for the carolers to come around, as everybody in Glen Rock tends to do." Because of the hilly terrain, the group was on the street about 150 feet away, but still at the same level as his second-story porch. "They sang 'Softly, Sweetly, Through the Air,' and the experience of hearing them that close, under those conditions, on a crystalline night with the air brittle and that sound coming through, it was just marvelous. And the experience has never diminished since then; in fact, it's grown."
The history of the group is well documented in the book Salute This Happy Morn: A History of the Glen Rock Carol Singers, by Dr. Charles H. Glatfelter, as well as in the personal letters and family stories of members like longtime carolers historian James R. Kroh. In 1837, William Heathcote, from the county of Cheshire in northwestern England, bought a parcel of land along the banks of the Codorus as a site for his woolen mill, now the Glen Rock Mill Inn on Water Street. He had to have noticed how his customs differed from those of his new Pennsylvanian German wife, especially at Christmas time. In England, the Yule was met with rejoicing and song, while the local folks of the predominantly German area held a more restrained observance. However, over the next several years, Heathcote's relatives, Mark, James, and John Heathcote, joined him. The year 1848 saw the arrival of three younger countrymen: Charles Heathcote, 28; Mark Radcliffe, 21; and George Shaw, 19. One can only imagine how lonely the youthful immigrants must have been on Christmas Eve. That night, the three young men, along with Mark Heathcote and James Heathcote, bassoon in hand, took to the streets and sang four beloved carols to every home in the tiny village. As Glen Rock grew, so did the carolers, who ceased to belong to only one denomination and nationality. The songs, too, grew from four to the now 11 pieces.
The observance today begins with an inside concert of all 11 songs, directed by Darryl Engler. The carolers appoint a president every year whose chief duty is to give the annual speech. Paul Shepperd III took his turn to pay tribute to the families who feed the troupe along the route declaring, "I, for one, have never gone hungry on Christmas Eve," while Jon Nicklow performed an original song, "Christmas in Glen Rock," as his speech.
The men then don their great coats, hats, canes, and scarves, made by women of the town, and gather at the traffic light (there's only one). "Apprentices" hold lanterns, and the "peanut man" doles his wares from a burlap sack. The first song begins when Engler's watch says it's midnight. With a blast of a horn, the 50 voices cry out, "Christians awake, salute this happy morn." The trek continues with three more of the original English songs: "While Shepherds Watched," "Hark! Hark!" and "Hosanna in the Highest." "Ye Faithful," a unique version of "O Come All Ye Faithful," follows, as do four American songs from the evangelical movement of the late 1800s: "Glory in the Highest," "The Christmas Tree," "O Jesus, Star of the Morning," and "Softly, Sweetly, Through the Air." "Silent Night," added by popular demand in the 1930s, and "When Christ Was Born," an old hymn Engler introduced in 1986, round out the selections. Through the night, townsfolk greet them with children wrapped in comforters and porch lights on. Many hold all-night open houses, and two or three homes welcome the entire group to an all-out feast. The proceedings conclude at around 7 a.m. with the singing of the Doxology at the town Christmas tree.
During his many trips to England, Swartz, who has been named an honorary caroler, has researched the roots of the singing. "It's an amazing experience when you begin to realize how long the tendrils of tradition are," he said. The carolers' vocal style, he noted, resembles American Sacred Harp singing and also what is known as West Gallery singing in England. "It has that same character in the voices," he said, "usually three parts, with the top harmony a third above the melody line," a very classical arrangement.
The Glen Rock Carolers are well rehearsed, practicing weekly beginning every fall. The 50 men must commit to the all-night trek, even those with young families. Still, there is a waiting list to join, and several members are honored each year for having participated 50 years or more. Glatfelter, in his 150th-celebration address, stressed the importance of acceptance by the families and residents. "It just doesn't just happen," he said. The tradition has survived wars, a Great Depression, and the often-abominable weather without the support of any government or private entity.
Last year, through the miracle of the worldwide web and digital photography, trumpeter Ed Bailey took the group into the 21st century. His site (http://users.supernet.com/pages/bailey/carolers.html → glenrockcarolers.org) features photos of the 1999 celebration, some history, and even the music. "I just had this mission," he said, "I told everyone that by the time they woke up Christmas morning, the photos would be there, and they were." The group has also produced a CD, Softly, Sweetly, Through the Air, and a video by that same name. Both can be ordered from the web. (The carolers have little need for money, unless one of the guys sits on his hat, so most proceeds go to charity.)
Perhaps the best hope for the survival of the tradition is Glen Rock's children. With the ease with which most youngsters sing "Jingle Bells," many can recite the lyrics of the unusual songs: "Good will henceforth, from heaven to men/ Begin and never cease."
Dirty Linen #91, Dec 2000/Jan 2001 Kathy Mattea, John Cowan, Alan Stivell, Rosie Ledet, Slaid Cleaves, The Glen Rock Carollers, Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott, Louis Armstrong, Fiddlers of the Maritime Provinces, Songs and Lives: Portraits of Traditional Singers from Britain, Seasonal Recordings, Nerds Fly North!, recording reviews, book reviews, concert reviews, video reviews|