Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
November 27, 2006
DeKalb, Ill. — Everyone knows that the venerable Christmas Carol, “The First Noel,” has its origins in France. The trouble is everyone is wrong.
Northern Illinois University Professor Emeritus (and world renowned expert on Christmas carols) William Studwell has chosen the 450-year-old song as his Carol of the Year for 2006. He purposefully refers to it by its original title “The First Nowell,” and is using the occasion of the honor to set the record straight on the song’s history.
“Whenever the misguided and mistaken form “The First Noel” appears in the literature of carols, the usual and typical impression derived is that the carol is of French origin,” says Studwell, who has been selecting a Carol of the Year for 21 years. “But such an inference is thoroughly and unequivocally incorrect.”
The word “Nowell” is indeed an Anglicized version of the French word for Christmas, “Noel,” he says. However, all historical evidence indicates that the song emerged from the remote Cornwall region of southwest England in the mid 16th century. Whether the name was changed by a Francophile publisher or just a lazy typesetter seeking a shorter word is unclear, but sometime between 1870 and the early 20th century, the switch was made. Regardless of how or why it happened, the new title stuck and confusion over the birthplace of this much beloved carol has reigned ever since.
The song endured another alteration sometime around 1860, when someone took the liberty of modifying that portion of the tune accompanying the line “Born is the King…” Most musicians and musical historians, says Studwell, believe that change was for the better.
It may seem odd that such tinkering with a classic is tolerated, but the so-called experts have always had a love-hate relationship with the song. The lyrics have been belittled as “a sincere, devout attempt of a peasant to put the Christmas story into rhyme,” or worse, “crude poetry.” Nitpickers also like to point out that the song contains some historical inaccuracies: It mentions the shepherds, instead of the wise men, seeing the star, and it places the star in the east (from whence the wise men came) rather than the west (the direction they would have been traveling).
However, once they are through disparaging the piece, most experts place the carol alongside the classics of the genre. Even its harshest critics, says Studwell, soften their final analysis and deem the carol tuneful, full of joy and vigor and one that will “ever be a favorite because of its sincerity and simplicity.”
That is the dilemma of this song, Studwell says.
“It is homely, unspectacular and not highly aesthetic. At the same time, it is comfortable, lovable and enduring.” In his new book, “An Easy Guide to Christmas Carols: Their Past, Present and Future,” (The Lyre of Orpheus Press), Studwell ranks the “The First Nowell” number 13 in his Top 20.
Studwell, 70, began researching Christmas carols in 1972 when he created a pamphlet about “Oh Holy Night” as a gift for a family member. Since then he has researched and written about hundreds of carols and has conducted more than 700 media interviews on the topic for newspapers, radio and television. He also has served as an advisor to several projects compiling recordings and lyrics of carols.
He estimates that he has devoted more than 6,000 hours of his life to studying and writing about Christmas carols. At the height of his research he had a room full of tables stacked high with more than 400 reference volumes from around the globe and immersed himself in collections at libraries across the country.
Studwell also is a champion of other musical genres that he believes are under-appreciated and has written extensively on college fight songs, state songs, patriotic music and circus music, becoming a nationally recognized expert in each of those fields. He has written 40 books in all.
Studwell, who is retired from Northern Illinois University, now resides in Bloomington, Indiana. He can be reached by telephone at (812) 330-1996.
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