Soul Cakes and Souling: A Musical Tradition From the Past
An Old Tradition and a Modern Celebration
Around the time of Halloween, families in the medieval period traditionally made soul cakes in remembrance of the dead. Children and poor people would go from door to door, singing or praying and receiving a soul cake in return. The custom was known as souling and the cakes were sometimes known as souls. The tradition is still followed in some places. It’s thought to have been at least part of the origin of our modern custom of trick-or-treating.
“Soul Cake” is a lovely old English song about the tradition that is still sung today. It's also known as the souling song. Different interpretations and instrumentation make the various versions of the song sound unique. In this article I discuss a little of the historical background of the cakes and the music. I also include six of my favourite versions of the song and give some information about the vocalists who sang them.
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.— Traditional chorus of the song as sung in the late nineteenth century (writer unknown)
Many people celebrate Halloween on October 31st. They may not realize that November 1st is known as All Saints Day in the Christian tradition and that November 2nd is All Souls Day. The latter day was originally designated by the Catholic Church as a time to remember souls in purgatory. Soul cakes are thought to have been given to visitors in return for a spoken or sung prayer for a family member in purgatory.
Most of our knowledge about souling comes from the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, although the custom began much earlier in history and occurred in continental Europe as well as the UK. By the 1800s the event seems to have lost the connection to souls, apart from the name of the cakes, but it still had links to Christianity.
A soul cake of the nineteenth century was sized for a single person and contained fruit. Some people today make the cakes as part of their Halloween celebration. Modern versions often contain spices as well as dried fruit and usually resemble a cookie. Some are decorated with a cross made of currants or raisins.
Another development in the history of the tradition was the creation of a song (as opposed to a sung prayer) about soul cakes and souling. The song was sung in the nineteenth century and possibly at an earlier time. People still enjoy singing or listening to it, though they generally don't do this during souling. The custom of souling is said to survive in a few places in Europe, however.
The Possible Influence of Mummers
Though most sources agree that souling was very likely part of trick-or-treating history, some say there may have been an additional influence. Mummers were amateur actors and entertainers that performed in groups and wore costumes. They performed at special times of the year, especially at Christmas and sometimes around All Souls Day. Some groups went from one wealthy family's home to another and were given food, a drink, or another gift in return for their performance. Mummers performed in Europe as long ago as the medieval period. Some troupes exist today.
God bless the master of this house,
The misteress also,
And all the little children
That round your table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store;
And all that dwells within your gates,
We wish you ten times more.— First verse of the traditional song
The Soul Cake or Souling Song
The lyrics and the music of the soul cake song weren’t recorded until around 1891. At that time, a minister in Cheshire “collected” the song by listening to a girl from a local school as she sang it. In 1893, the lyrics and the tune were recorded in writing and a music score by Lucy Broadwood. Broadwood was a respected folk song collector and researcher who lived from 1858 to 1929.
The song has three verses and a chorus. In the three verses, the singer wishes the family well (first verse) and then politely says that he or she would appreciate a donation of apples and strong beer from the cellar (second verse) as well as a penny or a halfpenny (third verse). The chorus is sung at the beginning of the song and after each verse. Some versions of the song add other lines or change the original ones slightly. The alterations sometimes change the song into a Christmas one.
Souling Song by Kristen Lawrence
Kristen Lawrence is a classical and university-trained organist from the United States. She is also a singer and a composer. She says that she loves Halloween and has written over sixty songs about the festival. Her compositions are influenced by classical, folk, and rock music. In the video below, she sings the souling song accompanied by a pipe organ.
A pipe organ is an impressive instrument that can add power, drama, and beauty to music. Pressurized air is sent through pipes by a keyboard in order to produce sounds. The console is the place where the musician sits and plays the instrument. Some organs have very tall pipes and complex consoles. The bigger organs are played by multiple keyboards, or manuals. They are often found in cathedrals.
Down into the cellar,
And see what you can find,
If the barrels are not empty,
We hope you will prove kind.
We hope you will prove kind,
With your apples and strong beer,
And we'll come no more a-souling
Till this time next year.— Second verse of the traditional song
A Soalin' by Peter, Paul and Mary
Peter, Paul and Mary was the name of a very popular American folk group that formed in 1961. The group consisted of Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers. The singers went their separate ways in 1970 but reformed the group temporarily at various times. In 1981, they reunited. Unfortunately, Mary died from cancer in 2009.
The group's version of the soul cake song was first performed in 1963. The song retains the chorus of the original song as well as the three verses (with slightly altered lyrics), but it also adds a new verse at the beginning and end of the song. The first verse talks of being merry despite nobody being home and the singer having "no meat nor drink nor money". The last one refers to the Christmas celebration and ends with the line "Oh tidings of comfort and joy".
A Soalin' by Stephen DeRuby
Stephen DeRuby was primarily known as a flute maker and player, though as can be seen in the video below, he also sang and played the bouzouki. His music was often classified as New Age. Sadly, he died of cancer in 2016. The lyrics of his rendition of the song are similar to those of the Peter, Paul and Mary version.
The bouzouki is a popular instrument in Greece. It has a long neck and a pear-shaped body. The front of the body, or bowl, is often attractively decorated. The instrument has three (the trichordo) or four (the tetrachordo) pairs of strings. It's played with a plectrum, or a pick.
The lanes are very dirty,
My shoes are very thin,
I've got a little pocket
To put a penny in.
If you haven't got a penny,
A ha'penny will do;
If you haven't get a ha'penny,
It's God bless you.— Third verse of the traditional song
Souling Song by The Watersons
"The Watersons" was the name of an English folk group composed of members of an extended family. The group formed in the 1960s and originally consisted of three siblings and their second cousin. They were known for singing without a musical accompaniment, or a capella, though they sometimes played instruments in their performances.
The older family members have died and the younger ones haven't performed as a group for around ten years, but the group's legacy has lived on in the memories of many folk music enthusiasts. The group is admired for its distinct sound and the rich texture of the harmony in its songs.
Soul Cake by Sting
Sting is a popular English singer, musician, and composer. His real name is Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner. From 1977 to 1985, he was the leader of the band known as The Police. He started his solo career in 1986. He's won many awards, including sixteen Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy. He has also been nominated for an Academy Award four times for his song compositions. In 2003, he was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for his services to music.
According to his website, Sting received his nickname when he was a member of a band called the Phoenix Jazzmen. Another musician noticed his colourful sweater, which had black and yellow stripes resembling those of a wasp. The musician called Sumner "Sting". The name stuck.
The performance of "Soul Cake" shown in the video below was recorded in Durham Cathedral in 2009. The lyrics are roughly the same as the traditional ones, but a reference to Christmas is included.
Soul Cake by the Vancouver Youth Choir
The Vancouver Youth Choir was created by Carrie Tennant, who is also the choir's artistic director and conductor. The choir consists of singers aged 15 to 24. It was founded in 2013 and has already attracted attention in the choral world.
The organization that runs the youth choir also runs choirs for younger teens and children. The junior group is composed of students in Grades 7 to 11. In the video below, the juniors perform with the addition of some members of the youth choir. The video was recorded in 2016 at the Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver. As in some other versions of the song, lyrics about Christmas have been inserted.
Creativity and Connections
I love the fact that the creativity of musicians enables them to produce different versions of a single song. The various productions of "Soul Cake" provide a good demonstration of this ability. Exploring the song, soul cakes, and the custom of souling allows us to get a glimpse of history and the culture of the past. Investigating music and its connections is always an interesting and enjoyable process.
© 2018 Linda Crampton