Remember Bethlehem was conceived after a conversation on the works of the late story-telling songsmith, Jake Thackray. Thackray’s sometimes bawdy, sometimes satirical and often hilarious lyrics are delivered in a lugubrious baritone, and underpinned by a strong Yorkshire accent that led him to be dubbed the “North Country Noel Coward”. In his Remember Bethlehem, heshows a more tender side, and tells a story, devoid of expletives and cutting social commentary, of a “shabby little country girl” completely broken by the ardours of her journey, arriving in Bethlehem as a distrusted foreigner to give birth to baby boy called Jesus. What struck and moved me most about Thackray’s telling of the Nativity Narrative is the way he normalizes Mary. Rather than retrospectively beatifying her - telling her story full in the knowledge of the extraordinary thing she did (as most nativity stories do) – Thackray’s portrayal of her as young, afraid and cold makes her achievement all the more astonishing. Indeed, so out-of-the-ordinary is the gift given by this apparently ordinary girl, that no one and no thing can ever forget it: “Even the stony old hills […] your shaggy old trees […] the sulky old sun Remembers Bethlehem.”
My carol of the same name adapts a similar approach to telling Mary’s story. Musically, I have only thinly veiled my affection for Peter Warlock’s miniature masterpiece, Bethlehem Down, and evidence of this can be seen not only in the choice of key, triple metre and strophic setting, but also in the resemblance of some of the cadential figures. A final strand of influence comes once more from Yorkshire, and specifically Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre. My wife is a literature scholar, and pointed out to me the parallels between Mary’s plight in Thackray’s story, and a scene from the novel in which Jane is lost up on the moors. Through her distrust of man she feels outcast and dejected, and places herself in the benign maternal protection of nature, and by inference, of God. Brontë’s poetry is too perfect and rich for me merely to emulate, and as such, the second verse of Remember Bethlehem is adapted directly from her words.