This is an old mummers’ song for house visiting at the turn of the year, marking the death of the old year, then heralding the birth of the new one when the horse springs back to life.
Well, sort of. It was sung for several years, in parts of Derbyshire and Yorkshire, by people going around the houses at the turn of the year carrying an ‘oss’ – a horse’s skull on a stick, sometimes with drapery to enable one of the group to provide the horse’s ‘body’. But ‘several’ doesn’t mean thousands or even hundreds of years; the slightly overheated antiquarian speculations identifying the horse with Odin’s steed Sleipnir – and the blacksmith who puts in an appearance towards the end with Thor – can probably be ignored. The thing is, the song itself isn’t at all old: it appeared in the mid-nineteenth century as a broadside ballad, and seems to have been just a song about an old horse before the mummers got hold of it.
But it’s a likeable song, and anything to do with mumming and house visiting is appropriate for this corner of the year. I learned it from John Kirkpatrick’s version, which he seems to have pieced together from three or four different variants with a bit of patching-up and a few new lines. Purist that I am, I took out the new material as far as possible and put the mummers’ last verse back in.
Although I liked the John Kirkpatrick version well enough to learn the song from it, I was always slightly irked by the Albionian jolliness of it, and I was wondering about doing something slightly different with it. Then I heard the wonderful take on the (closely-related) Old Grye Song on Rapunzel and Sedayne‘s album (you can hear an earlier version here) and got some ideas. My version isn’t as radical as theirs or as accomplished, but it wouldn’t have sounded the same without it – so thanks, R&S!
Three or four melodica parts, two D whistles, umpty-three vocals but no harmonies. Top recording tip: to split one voice into two (verses 5 and 7), split the stereo track into two, one for each channel, and insert a 0.05 second delay in one of them. It has to be a twentieth of a second: any more and you hear the delay, any less and you can’t hear the difference. I’ve put the song together with Scan Tester’s tune The Man in the Moon, just because I thought they would work well together.