Kentucky Wassail for Mountain Dulcimer

Here is a Christmas revelry tune, “Kentucky Wassail,” which is fitting for the winter holiday season. It is similar to other traditional English wassailing songs, with a melodic and cheerful feel and lyrics about the merrymakers going door to door, bringing “good health” and singing to the occupants of the home. Rather than “wassail bowl,” these carolers had a cup made from “an old oak tree” and the ale was made in “Kentucky.” The “Kentucky Wassail” carol was collected by John Jacob Niles, a ballad and folk song musicologist from Kentucky. He found many of his tunes in the Appalachian mountain in the early 1900s and began publishing them from 1920 to 1935. “Kentucky “Wassail is easy to play on the mountain dulcimer; I have arranged an adapted a version of the tune for this instrument.

“Kentucky Wassail” is very similar to another English carol, “The Somerset Carol.” It is unclear whether Niles actually wrote “Kentucky Wassail” or just adapted it from traditional English wassailing tunes which were brought to the Appalachian mountains by English settlers. I could not locate “Kentucky Wassail” in songbooks of Appalachian ballads or Christmas songbooks which were compiled by John Jacob Niles and published by G. Schirmer, Inc. in the 1930’s. In any event, Amazon sells a remastered recording of Niles singing “Kentucky Wassail” a cappella with a small amount of piano accompaniment. It was fascinating to me to hear the original artist singing his tune — and he did sing it very freely; almost as a ballad — in his high pitched, nasal voice. You can also find versions of “Kentucky Wassail” sung by choirs on You-Tube channels. I was able to locate a printed version of the song in “The Christmas Revels Songbook” compiled by Nancy and John Langstaff but not in Niles own book of “Christmas Songs and Carols.”

“Kentucky Wassail” was collected by musicologist, John Jacob Niles (1892 – 1980). Niles worked and travelled in Eastern Kentucky from 1910 to 1917, collecting and transcribing traditional ballads from oral tradition. He began publishing these tunes from the Appalachian in 1920. Throughout his life, Niles worked in the entertainment industry, wrote and published music. He performed these Appalachian songs, often accompanying himself on guitar and even dulcimer, and was a important part of the folk music scene in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to folk songs, Niles wrote and published works of a more classical nature, traveled in Europe performing and even performed at the White House. One member of our local dulcimer group can recall going to see John Jacob Niles perform at LSU in Baton Rouge while as he toured the country. What an experience!

Playing “Kentucky Wassail” on Dulcimer

“Kentucky Wassail” is easy to play on the mountain dulcimer in DAD tuning although the timing is a little tricky. The melody of the song primarily stays on the melody string and only a few chords are really needed to make a pleasing arrangement.

Although the song has a melodic and lively element, Niles sang the song at a moderate tempo. So I changed the time signature to 4/4 time from the original 2/4 time, thus making it easier to follow along, strum and play a little slower. In addition, the song changes tempo to a 6/4 time signature in the middle of the song on measure #8 which adds a few extra notes and beats to the tune. To play the song as written, you can’t rush the notes of “Kentucky” in measures #8 and #9. Then the tune slows down for the rest of the measures of the song with half notes in each measure.

I love playing Christmas carols and music, both traditional tunes and contemporary ones. This wassailing song is a good one to play on the dulcimer. Enjoy!


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