While Shepherds Watch (Sweet Chiming Bells)


True to Jon’s word he introduces this saying, “Shepherds variation two and the only version with an interpolated chorus. It’s very popular this one.” Let’s just call this (ahem!) the exception that proves the rule of my assertion yesterday that the lyrics to this remain constant. In fairness Jon has it about right as the extra chorus seems to have landed out of nowhere, having little to do with the rest of the text, but adding a jolly little refrain that works beautifully in this chorus setting. Two down and no socks have been washed as yet!

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


36 Responses to “While Shepherds Watch (Sweet Chiming Bells)”

  1. Reinhard says:

    Wonderfully sung carols. I didn’t really know of the Sheffield pub carol tradition before and I’m glad to be introduced to it this way – hopefully there will be lots more in the next weeks! I hope I’m not a smart-ass but Kate Rusby has two variations of While Shepherds Watched with an interpolated chorus on her CD Sweet Bells, this one and another one called Hail Chime On.

    And congratulations to Bellowhead and Hedonism for winning the fRoots Critics Poll Album of the Year against very strong competition.

  2. muzza says:

    This is the simpler,but just as jolly, version that an old atheist like me enjoys.

  3. Jon Boden says:

    Forgot about Hail Chime On – sung it last night in fact. Another good one!

  4. Dave Eyre says:

    Ian Russell when talking about the carols in Dungworth indicates that this was introduced in the 1950’s. However I started singing there in 1972 and I don’t remember it being sung at that time. But it is an ever-changing tradition (which some people may not realise). And of course I have not been to every week since then!

    As an example and currently “Portugal” (a superb carol) is sung after the organist has left and I have no doubt that it will get sung in the main repertoire eventually.

    “Swaledale” – not a carol of course – only came into the repertoire in the 1980’s.

  5. Ellie May says:

    The sweet chiming bells refrain reminds me of the songs sung in the classic kids animation Bagpuss! Enjoyed it and sung along!

  6. Gerald says:

    I like this very much – vitality – energy and grace. Well done!!

  7. emily says:

    I learnt this (& quite a few of the other Sheffield carols) at junior school in the early 80s. I grew up in the “wrong” bit of Sheffield for all this (though my parents were from Stannington/Stocksbridge & my mum – who’s in her 60s now – certainly knew this version when I was learning it) but we had a couple of teachers who ran a choir & taught us these carols, which we then sang in church halls, community centres, old people’s homes etc. (Like a lot of kids, I joined the choir primarily to get out of lessons).

    I had no real idea then that these songs were “local” or any different to other carols you heard more generally & I thought it was perfectly routine that carols should be named after places in Sheffield like Stannington or Malin Bridge. The Sheffield Star also used to publish a carol song sheet at Christmas with things like Stannington & Jacob’s Well mixed in with O Little Town of Bethlehem or whatever. The realisation only dawned on me gradually! I used to hold a Christmas pudding party when I was a student in Cambridge & taught quite a few people Sweet Chiming Bells, mainly because unlike a lot of the other carols I could remember the words! I hope they still remember it.

    Exiled in Newcastle upon Tyne, hearing this, Pentonville, Hark Hark etc. has made my Christmas. Thank you. 🙂

  8. Brian G says:


  9. John Burton says:

    We did Hail Chime On on Friday but we don’t do this one.
    Can you get away with doing an Ecclesfield tune in Dungworth?
    We get away with murder over here, cos few know any better.

  10. Shelley says:

    Probably my favourite version of “While Shepherds Watched”. This has earwormed me all weekend!

  11. Jan says:

    ‘Two down and no socks washed yet’ – give it time!

  12. […] While Shepherds Watch (Sweet Chiming Bells). […]

  13. Allan Hawke says:

    My father used to sing this version of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ in County Durham in the 1940s/1950s. I think it was well known in our pit village. I’ve only recently rediscovered it. Thank you for this recording.

  14. Karen Russell says:

    Just catching up with Folk Song a Day. Brilliant!
    This version is well known in East Yorkshire. My mum used to sing it going round the farms of the Yorkshire Wolds and taught me at an early age. Carol singing around farms is a tradition that continues in places.

  15. Chris Murray says:

    This is my favourite Christmas carol. It’s slightly different from the Kate Rusby version but this is the version that my family loves. My grandad taught it to us.

  16. Diana says:

    Lovely!. Got my request from yesterday granted then.

  17. Jane Ramsden says:

    I can see why everyone likes this, but I think I preferred yesterday’s version. Dunno though. Got good by the end! Hahaha! Hadn’t heard either afore AFSAD, knowing only what I think of as the standard version… and the one to ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘At!’

  18. Helen Rowell says:

    I am a member of the Gargoyles folk group from Gargunnock in Central Scotland. There are 5 of us and we sing acapella folk of all types plus we do medieval festivals suitably dressed.
    I have just heard Sweet Bells and fallen in love with it and am wondering if your wonderful harmonies are down as sheet music anywhere?
    At Christmas we always raise money for charity by doing gigs at the farmers markets in the area and carol singing round the village. We would love to add Sweet Bells to our repertoire if possible for next Christmas. One of our recent favourites is Tar Barrel in Dale by the Unthanks. They do not have sheet music available for the song but I emailed Adrian McNally and he kindly gave us some tips for recreating the harmonies and wished us luck with it and it really does sound pretty good.

    Yesterday we sang on the shores of Loch Lomond in snow and sunshine raising money for our local mountain rescue team and last night we did 2 numbers in the village Christmas show. Our last commitment is on Wednesday where we will be joined by the local choir and anyone who wants to come along to sing carols in the 2 local lairds houses and then around the village ending in the inn. We will be plied with mulled wine in many of our planned stops so the inn will be hopping when we arrive there!

    Good wishes to all

    Gargoyles Organiser and exiled Yorkshire woman

  19. Jon Boden says:

    Hi All. Seasons greetings! The harmonies in the group songs for December where all improvised by the participants (hence the occasional lack of melody!) so aren’t written down anywhere. There are books available with written parts (try http://www.villagecarols.org.uk/CAROLS/vcpublications.htm for starters). Sweet Bells is one of those sings where the harmonies seem to be less fixed, but I should think there are a few written arrangements out there. I’m pretty sure there are dots for it in the Worral Male Voice Choir carols book, but I’m not sure if that’s available online. Sorry I can’t be more helpful. Have a great Christmas everyone! Jon x

  20. viv says:

    Really enjoyed this one :o)

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

    Oh I have just had a lusty ‘join in’ at 10:15am (Uk time -not AFSAD time)
    and the snow is falling outside..and I’ve got to go out and get some shopping and so I will be cheered on my heavenly way…………
    Snow ! ……….we don’t expect that in softie Surrey…
    it belongs ‘oop Norf’…..(of Watford that is)….where the hardy folk live.

  22. Diana says:

    Don’t you fret my lad. Muzza had a light covering this morning and lots forecast for overnight. Brrrr. Oop norf has had it bad yesterday at the Snake Pass where the highest pub in England is, causing accidents as it does every year.

    Like this carol as well with the choir.

  23. Rollo Woods says:

    Dec 14

    There are supposed to be about 400 different tunes used for While Shepherds Watched. Personally, I doubt this, as I have so far found only about 90. The Chiming bells version was recorded several times by Ian Russell in his Village Carol series from the Sheffield pubs. In No 10 of this series you can find the dots also, but set to different verses – beginning O’er earthly plains. Bob Patten found it in Somerset, too.

    I don’t think it as good as Lyngham, anyway.

  24. Michael Teuschler says:

    I have a Spotify selection named While Shepherds Watched with several by Jon (LOVE the harmonies) and about 30 or 40 other versions. Excellent listening for one track minds like me.

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

    Couldn’t wait….saw this was coming up and had a quick squint a day early-one of my favourites!

  26. Even olderMuzza(NWSurrey) says:

    Still love this one and I can bash it out a treat on the old melodeon!

  27. Stewart says:

    But where and when were both the tune for the verse and chorus written, and by whom? Please?

  28. […] http://www.afolksongaday.com/?p=1510 has audio file … the extra chorus seems to have landed out of nowhere, having little to do with the rest of the text, but adding a jolly little refrain that works beautifully in this chorus setting. Two down and no socks have been washed as yet! […]

  29. Linda says:

    Lovely ! Got the melodeon out Muzza?

  30. Linda says:

    Enjoying the carols ..one of my favourites

  31. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Yup Lindy Lou….the old melodeon churning away and this is one of my favourites as well

  32. Old Muzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Yeh….this one lured me down from the hills to the comments page and I will be bashing away on the old melodeon as soon as I post this…..no snow this yesr so far darn souf!!

  33. John Bryson says:

    A great version of this carol, in my humble opinion.

    Muzza – your lack of snow – my Wife Jane are currently in a hotel in Essex, heading for home in Leicestershire today.

    We took the car as far as Vienna in the last three weeks, visiting Christmas markets, among other things, and snow has followed us

    We had snow, either snowing or already on the ground, in Regensburg, Vienna, Munich, Ulm, Colmar and Calais☃️

  34. Old Muzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    Blimey John….you are certainly adventurous…..I reckon 5 miles each way from my home is ‘Exploring’!
    Sooooo….it’s you bringing all this snow to the UK from that Continent…. in your car boot…beeeeehaaave!
    Hope that you get home safely

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