From Mission Halls to the Music Halls
Updated: Apr 23
I am a big fan of Coronation Street. Unlike the doom-laden scripts from many other soaps, Corrie, for me, always lifts the spirits with its thread of good, wholesome humour running through the narrative. You can almost imagine some of the characters – past and present – on the music hall stage or in a pantomime. Indeed, earlier this year, one the the streets most entertaining residents, Mary Taylor (played by Patti Clare), made reference to the music hall song, 'Mary from the Dairy', a comic song made famous by Cheeky Chappie, Max Miller.
During lockdown, I enjoyed watching some of the older episodes of Coronation Street, particularly the ones with no-nonsense Ena Sharples (Violet Carson). In the very first episode of Coronation Street, Ena introduces herself to the new shopkeeper:
"I’m Mrs Sharples. I’m a neighbour. I’m a widow-woman...caretaker o’ the Glad Tidin’s Mission ‘all. What’s your place of worship?Hmm. I see, nothing in particular… C of E. Where you bein’ buried? Whatever you do don’t go to that Crematorium down 'road. As t'coffin 's rollin' away they play Moonlight and Roses. Ohh, I spoke t' Superintendant particularly. He said, ‘That’s not Moonlight and Roses that’s Andantina.’ I said, ‘Well, Andantina or no Andantina, I’m rollin’ away to Crimond'. Are them fancies todays?’”
What great script writing! With her pugnacious demeanour and acid tongue, Violet Carson plays this part brilliantly. I'm impressed, and find it reassuring, how present day Corrie scriptwriters adroitly weave in biblical and Christian references from time to time, but I suspect the reference to Crimond will be lost on many people today. This hymn setting of the 23rd psalm was once a popular choice for funerals. I often find in my ministry that many people struggle to think of, or indeed remember, hymns that they might want to include at their wedding or at a loved ones funeral.
Ena was a caretaker at the Glad Tidings Mission Hall. However, with congregation numbers dwindling, the hall eventually became a venue for clubs and meetings etc.
Being a priest and a lover of the music hall genre, I have been reflecting on this aspect of social and religious history; how many mission halls across the country eventually closed and became used for other purposes; how many music halls became mission halls or taken over by religious groups. Wilton's Music Hall in the east end of London is a good example.
So, on 29th March 2020, in an attempt to bring people together through hymns, songs and laughter, during lockdown I began a weekly live-streaming sing-a-long via the Llangollen churches Facebook page: ’From Mission Halls to the Music Halls’.
Thanks to the live-stream facility, this virtual, covid-secure, congregation have been sharing their stories with me via the comments bar on Facebook Live or by sending me a personal email. Together, we have explored songs and stories from the Mission Halls (particularly the American evangelists Sankey & Moody) and the Music Halls.
Seated at my piano with a large G&T, each Sunday evening at 6pm I continue to lead the lockdown sing-a-long in two halves. In the first half, I sing and dedicate hymns that people had requested and say a little bit about what the particular hymn meant to that person in their spiritual journey.
For the past few months it has been a great joy and privilege to dedicate hymns from Sacred Songs and Solos to online viewers all over the globe, especially those hymns that many associate with Sunday School, hymns like, 'Jesus wants me for a sunbeam', 'Tell me the old, old story', 'Shall we gather at the river', ' Jesus bids us shine', and many more. Finishing with a rousing doxology, I would then segue into the second half with a quick change of costume: 'Let's all go to the Music Hall where the show is gay and bright ('Av a banana).'
My 'billing matter' has been put this way:
'...a conglomerate yet cohesive concretion of catchy choruses from the Victorian Music Hall.'
Many of our favourite hymn tunes were composed in the Victorian period, around the same time as music hall songs. It's no surprise then, that we can find musical similarities between them, for example, sugary chord progressions and chromaticisms. The tunes of the Sankey & Moody revival hymns had easy to remember choruses and carried melodies in a gentle and sentimental style. Just as music hall performers would engage with their audiences using patter and jokes that ordinary people could relate to, so too, did Sankey & Moody connect with their congregations by using conversational language and anecdotes. David Bebbington, author of Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, notes that,
"Sankey catered for their tastes. His style was valued because it was so close to that of the music hall. In troubled times, when mortality rates were high, many of these hymns expressed the feeling of weariness, hope and longing...for a better world."
Alcohol and ribald songs were an essential component of music hall entertainment and enjoyment so it is highly unlikely that Sankey and Moody crossed the threshold of a British Music Hall. It is interesting to note, however, that in 1873, the two evangelists held a service in the Edinburgh Music Hall.
I was brought up with hymns and music hall songs sung to me by my grandmother. In a way, they have been part of my formation and learning. From an early age, the combination of these tunes and lyrics sparked my interest in the Christian faith and life in Victorian Britain. They contain Truths: hymns are beautiful statements about what we believe about God, the Church and the Sacraments. Music hall songs are part of our social history that inform us of what life was like for many Victorians: not being able to pay the rent and doing a 'moonlight flit', problems with the landlord, divorce, marriage, money, patriotism and much more.
Another interesting link between hymns and music hall songs, is that during the First World War, soldiers, inspired by the music hall performer Fred Karno (known for his incompetence), kept their spirits up by singing these words to the hymn tune Aurelia ('The Church's One Foundation'):
We are Fred Karno's Army,
The Ragtime Infantry;
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
What earthly use are we!
And when we get to Berlin,
The Kaiser he will say,
Hoch, hoch, Mein Gott,
What a bloody fine lot
Are the ragtime infantry.
I'm still live-streaming on Facebook every Sunday evening at 6pm. If you have any requests then please do get in touch.