That the Barenaked Ladies, of all people, might resurrect the original meaning, tempo and feel of a five hundred year old traditional Christmas carol seems an utterly ridiculous notion. And yet, curiously, this is exactly what the Canadian power-pop group has done with the commercial success of their mid-90s version of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.
Of all the traditional carols, none has been more misunderstood than GRYMG. None has been the victim of such periodic shoddy scholarship. None has so had its original joyous and raucous intent replaced by such somber plodding. Not that all of this ever detracted from its status as one of the most beloved and ubiquitous of all the season’s carols.
How ubiquitous is GRYMG, you ask? Let’s jus say this: you know that Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol? The actual carol that the site refers to is GRYMG. Which means GRYMG isn’t just a Christmas Carol, it’s the Christmas Carol.
Like most folk songs, the precise lineage of GRYMG is largely unknowable. Most music scholars agree that its earliest seeds came from England (though speculations of French origin are not uncommon), and that it most likely evolved into the tune we recognize today somewhere between the 15th and 17th centuries. There is little doubt that the song was one primarily enjoyed by the lower classes, and further was sung in the kinds of taverns where respectable people did not go. GRYMG was, in other words, the kind of festive ditty very inebriated people would sing at the top of their lungs while dancing jigs and reels. And it had true staying power. It was still quite popular in the early 19th century, when the the recording to paper of lowly folk songs by noble gentlemen was all the rage in Great Britain.
The Anglican Church took notice, and decided (surely correctly) that the song’s original inspiration was Luke 2:8-20. The song was eventually incorporated into its official hymnal. Within a few generations the hymn had pushed the folksong aside, as GRYMG slowly became “respectable.” Indeed, for the next century and a half, whenever you encountered the piece it was most likely arranged to sound something like this:
Interestingly, shoddy scholarship was eventually introduced to both strengthen the hymnal’s hold on the song and separate it from its plebeian roots. It’s still fairly common to find people note that the title, translated from the archaic, should read God Makes You Mighty, Gentlemen. This translation, obviously, relies on Rest and Merry having once meant Make and Mighty, respectively. The problem with this pervasive theory is that there is no record that either word was ever commonly used in anysuch a way; that they might have seems to have been a fiction created specifically for making this carol respectable.
In fact, the phrase “rest you merry” was somewhat common vernacular in the time GRYMG was evolving. Shakespeare uses it often in such plays as As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure and The Tempest. The phrase is actually defined in Bishop Thomas Cooper’s Bibliotheca Eliotæ in 1548:
“Aye, bee thou gladde: or joyful, as the vulgare people saie ‘Reste you mery’.”
The song, therefore, is a call to be joyful. Further, it was originally meant to be a call to be joyful with a drink in one hand, a loved (or lusted) one in the other, and one’s feet moving. GRYMG the hymn is a reverence; GRYMG the folksong was a celebration.
All of which is to say that when the Barenaked Ladies released their version of GRYMG with both Sarah McLaughlin and a dose of We Three Kings thrown in for good measure, it captured the original spirit of the delightfully “vulgare” folksong. (Mind you, the Canadians still managed to make it their own. Their replacing the traditional straight, marching quarter-note rhythm with a playful dotted-quarter/eighth swing is clearly a thoroughly modern pastiche.)
Which version you prefer — reverent or celebratory — is a matter of taste, and I must confess that I prefer each at different times. Wynton Marsalis’s reworking of the song’s somber, hymnal period through an Ellington-esque arrangement borders on melancholy, but is quite brilliant nonetheless.
And since the commercial success of the Barenaked Ladies’ version, a lot of other artists have been trying their hand at attempting to recapture the song’s original spirit to great success. It’s entirely possible that five hundred years ago people performed the song closely to Martha’s Trouble’s version (you can here a sample here), or even Ceud Miles Failte’s jig (below). Regardless, each is terrific.