Cavalorn (cavalorn) wrote,

Residue, the Devil's Interval, and Playing the Triangle in the Cosmic Orchestra

I am so fortunate. So stupidly pigging fortunate. I could cry.

Why? Because I sometimes get to do things that make me feel like I'm dinging my triangle on cue in the cosmic orchestra. Not big things. Not particularly significant things by anyone else's standards. But little things that seem to be there for me to do, that matter to me.

Never mind huge achievements and lofty aspirations. Just so long as you ding your triangle when you're supposed to, you're doing all right.

We've just bought an album called Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man by Waterson-Carthy, and listened to it. Now, this album kicks so much arse that you couldn't really kick more arse if you loaded an orbital cannon with football boots and fired it at an arse factory, but that's not the point. The point is the first track on the album, New Year Carol - Residue.

'Why Residue?' thought I as I unwrapped the plastic. 'What's Residue got to do with carols?' I checked the sleevenotes, and this is what they said:

Norma cannot remember who first handed her the song for the Watersons to sing but because the letter accompanying the words is signed 'From your favourite guitarist', wonders whether it was an old family friend from the East Riding called Bert Hodgson. None of us can figure out the possible significance of the 'Residue sing Residue' chorus and neither could Bert - or whoever it was - but that was, he said, what was sung to him.

A mystery? A mystery having to do with old folk songs?

If you've spoken to me for more than eight seconds, you'll know that I'm all about English arcana. Whether it's the Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, or myths of the countryside, or digging out the truth behind the bad Victorian plaster job of 'pagan origins', it all gives me indescribable joy. Deciphering the odd little riddles of history, or watching other people do the same, makes me glow like a cinder. Zing. I'm all ears. On goes the song.

It's gorgeous, and the chorus is indeed arcane:

Residue sing Residue the water and the wine
Seven bright gold wires and the trumpets that shine

Now, what the hell is all that about? Is the 'residue' meant to refer to leftover wine and water? Is it a code word for something? Does it allude to the remnants of the old year? Nobody knows.

And something taps me on the shoulder and grins. And I know I won't sleep tonight.

So I start thinking. As you do.

Whatever the words were, they must have made sense originally. 'Residue' doesn't. It's meaningless in context. So, there must have been something there that sounded like 'residue'. Something that belonged in a New Year carol.

So I sing the words to myself, over and over.

Often, people will preserve what they think they hear. Hoc est Corpus becomes Hocus Pocus. Pommes de terre frites becomes Bombadier Fritz.

And as I'm singing 'Residue sing Residue' I suddenly realise what I'm singing, and it's like putting a piece back in a jigsaw puzzle, because it fits.

'Grâce à Dieu, sing grâce à Dieu, the water and the wine...'

I don't think I can really describe how it feels to find something like that. That's what it is - it's finding. You put the piece in, and the past looks back at you, suddenly complete, immaculate. For the first time in God knows how long.

'Grâce à Dieu' simply means 'Thanks to God'. It's exactly what someone would sing in a New Year carol. As for the French, well, the word 'carol' itself is French. 'Nowell', as in The First Nowell, is a corruption of the French 'Noel'. It rings absolutely true.

And of course, if you didn't know any better and you heard someone sing the words 'sing grâce à Dieu, it would sound exactly like 'sing Residue', because the 'g' of 'sing' would run together with the 'g' of 'grâce'.

Not wishing to bother the family Waterson-Carthy at nine in the evening, I shot off to their website and left them a message. We'll see what comes of it.

Oh, the Devil's Interval? That's the name of the singing trio that worked with Waterson-Carthy on the album. They're staggeringly good. It's such a clever name for a folk group, too. If you don't get the reference, then hie ye hither forthwith.
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