While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (Pentonville)


Another from the chorus (the same line up listed for Hark Hark), that Jon introduces by informing us that “There are something like fourteen different versions of While Shepherds Watched sung around Sheffield. We’ll not be doing them all but maybe a few. It is a great lyric – so familiar that you don’t really notice it, but kind of perfect as a Christmas lyric.” I found this in my searches

The carol While Shepherds Watched dates back to 1703. The words for While shepherds watched were written by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brody. Only the Psalms Of David were sung in the Anglican Church prior to that time. The familiar melody used for While Shepherds Watched was taken from Siroe, an opera by George Frederick Handel.

Wiki expands on that and perhaps casts doubts as to the date claimed, but only by a year or three. As Jon has indicated there are many different versions of the tune for this, but I believe the lyrics remain fairly constant and for that Tate, the Poet Laureate in the reign of Queen Anne, takes the credit. Unusually I’ve also found a copy of the score, which I link to as it seems to suggest Pentonville was written by William Marsh (c1780-1805.) You might also care to have a look at this giving a very brief overview of hymns in general.

You can buy the December digital album now from all good download stores.


29 Responses to “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (Pentonville)”

  1. John Burton says:

    Nice timing, Orange Peel Carollers just sang this tonight as part of our gig for the Brampton Folk Club, in Ontario Canada,.
    We had you beat though, there were 23 of us. Never mind the quality just “feel” the width. Will have to see if we can post our rendition somewhere, there again I haven’t actually heard it yet, the recording that is. JohnB.

  2. Shelley says:

    Great stuff.

    I’m often puzzled that we sing what is probably the most boring tune to this carol in church every year, yet there are all those fantastic alternative tunes. I attended a couple of workshops on village carols at Sidmouth Folk Festival this year, and one consisted entirely of versions of “While Shepherds Watched”!

  3. Dave Eyre says:

    Great tune. One of those tunes where at the pub the basses have a strong part. Note, we always sing a slightly truncated version of the words.

    Looking forward to the third sing this Sunday.

  4. muzza says:

    Oh how I would have loved to seen a video of this in your (Jon’s) local pub with assembled chorus and tankards……….and sheep…….I can dream.!

  5. Tim says:

    A midi file of the original William Marsh tune at


    and a video clip (with string band) from Old Harrow, Grenoside at


  6. Jane Ramsden says:

    You are a versatile lot in Sheffield! Not doing it for me again though. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m not a Christmas carol person but, since I do have some favourites, I think it is more a case of not a congregational voice sort of a person. I’d have liked some sheep though!

  7. muzza says:

    Thanks for the Grenoside link Tim………….lots of atmosphere….technical fault played havock with the old eyeballs but captured the spirit of the community.

  8. Rosie says:

    What a fabulous tune, I just love this version so much more than the one we usually hear. Well sung!

  9. Diana says:

    What a beautiful arrangement. Such a difference from the customary music played. More of these please.

  10. Linda says:

    So nice to hear a joyful tune at christmas [thumbs up from the other half]

  11. Diana says:

    Hi Linda you have managed to get Colin interested now. Well done.

  12. Harry says:

    Nicholas Brady (1659–1726) not Brody! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tate_and_Brady

  13. muzza (Surrey) says:

    Just how many shepherds are there in Pentonville……
    Surely,watching flocks is not a crime.

  14. Am I going crazy, or can I hear Lucy Arrowsmith (Jess/Richard’s daughter) in the recording? It might just be my headphones being silly.

    Also: Thank you Jon for keeping me sane (even considering the above comment…) while I shout at this programming assignment.

  15. Next time I’ll read the damn posts beforehand where you say Lucy is there…

  16. Jane Ramsden says:

    Has grown on me… must be in a better place this year than last then! Hahahahaha! Thanks for the ‘about hymns’ link, Skyman.

  17. Joe Fineman says:

    At the pub carol sing yesterday (Doyle’s, Jamaica Plain, Boston, MA) we must have sung this to half a dozen tunes — and none of them was the one sung in Yorkshire & stolen there for “On Ilkla Moor baht hat”. Is this perhaps the hymn with the greatest number of current tunes?

    W. H. Auden, in _A Certain World_ s.v. Humor, Scatological (1970), confesses to being still tickled by what he and his naughty brothers had used to sing:

    While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
    All shitting on the ground,
    An angel of the Lord came down
    And handed paper round.

  18. Muzza+397days (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    and to think …………..’washed their socks by night’ was considered a bit risque by my circle of friends !

  19. Phil says:

    Can I sneak in a quick plug for my “Christmas album”, 52 Folk Songs – white? It’s a collection of seasonal songs (not all religious), recorded between Advent and Epiphany last year. The full album wasn’t ready until Christmas was well and truly over, which restricted its appeal somewhat! For this year I’ve given it a bit of a sprucing-up and remixed some of the vocals; I resisted the temptation to lay down massive beats and drop in house piano breaks (maybe next year).

    52 Folk Songs – white

    PS It doesn’t include “While Shepherds” in any form, unless you count this:

    On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At

  20. Diana says:

    So different from the carols i know – still nice.

  21. Joe Fineman says:

    More particularly, in Bruce A. Randall’s collection _Arise and Hail!_, this hymn appears set to the tunes Cranbrook (that’s the Ilkley Moor one), Otford, The Song of the Angels, and Sherburne; in _The Canadian Pub Caroler_, to Bethlehem, Lloyd, and Pentonville.

    _Pace_ Auden, I think “washed their socks” is funnier.

  22. Corinns says:

    Love this version, we used to sing it this way in my methodist Church when I was little.

  23. Barbara says:

    Looking forward to singing this & raising the rafters at the Royal Hotel on Sunday!

  24. Sally says:

    Loved this, reminding me of carol singing at the Methodist Chapel in Cornwall when I was very young

  25. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    It took an old fashioned Christmas carol to entice you three gals out of the woodwork-Huzzah!

  26. […] http://www.afolksongaday.com/?p=1507 . Jon introduces by informing us that “There are something like fourteen different versions of While Shepherds Watched sung around Sheffield. We’ll not be doing them all but maybe a few. It is a great lyric – so familiar that you don’t really notice it, but kind of perfect as a Christmas lyric.” […]

  27. […] University and toured with Bellowhead, band in residence at London’s South Bank Centre, also sang on Dec. 4 for the Folk Song a Day project a setting known by its tune name as PENTONVILLE “There are […]

  28. Old Muzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    EE by gum…they’re a rum lot oop there in that North
    Mind you…they’ve got more than their share of snow at the moment
    Here they are at the Old Harrow Pub annihilating the poor musicians!

  29. Jane (Maryland) says:

    Wonderful to hear this sung by a crowd! Thanks, Muzza.

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