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Jacob’s Well

[ Roud 17703 ; Mudcat 133748 ; trad.]

Jacob’s Well (also, Jacob’s Fountain and Well of Sychar) is a deep well hewn of solid rock that has been associated in religious tradition with Jacob for roughly two millennia. It is situated a short distance from the archaeological site of Tell Balata, which is thought to be the site of biblical Shechem. [Wikipedia]

Pub carols like Jacob’s Well—carols which have survived outside hymn books—are probably one of the last genuine living folksong forms in Britain today. The heart of this tradition lies in pubs between Sheffield and Barnsley, in places whose names are unmistakably northern: the White Hart in Oughtibridge, the Black Bull in Ecclesfield and the Royal Hotel in Dungworth, for example. But other pubs, and other areas, also continue to celebrate this pub carol tradition.

Jacob’s Well has sometimes been attributed to Hugh Bourne (1772-1852), the founder of the Primitive Methodists, but it seems there were versions of the song in circulation before his time. The song contains a vision of Christ travelling through the landscape of Britain, like William Blake’s Jerusalem.

Carollers at the White Hart, Oughtibridge, recorded on 13 December 1973 sang Jacob’s Well on the Leader anthology of a Christmas singing tradition recorded in South Yorkshire pubs, A People’s Carol.

Ian Russell recorded carollers at the Royal Hotel, Dungworth, on 3 December 1995 singing Jacob’s Well. This recording was released in 1996 on the Village Carols CD Hark, Hark! What News.

The Albion Band—at that time/project including Martin Carthy as a singer—sang Jacob’s Well in 1980 in their play (and on the subsequent album) Lark Rise to Candleford.

Nowell Sing We Clear sang Jacob’s Well on their 1995 CD Hail Smiling Morn!. They noted:

Hail, Smiling Morn, Old Foster, and Jacob’s Well are from the Yorkshire pub Christmas singing traditions found in several parts of the city of Sheffield. Our versions are taken from The Joy of Christmas: Words & Music of Traditional & Local Carols, compiled and presented by Worrall Male Voice Choir, privately published, ca. 1980.

Waterson:Carthy sang Jacob’s Well a cappella live at the Port Fairy Folk Festival, Australia, in March 1999. This track was included in the following year on the festival anthology Port Fairy Folk Festival and in 2005 on the Waterson:Carthy anthology The Definitive Collection.

Coope Boyes & Simpson, Fi Fraser, Jo Freya and Georgina Boyes sang Jacob’s Well in 2006 on their No Masters CD Voices at the Door.

Jon Boden sang Jacob’s Well as the 21 November 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day to start the Sheffield carol season.

Cupola:Ward sang Jacob’s Well in 2016 on their CD Bluebell, and Doug Eunson and Sarah Matthews returned to it in 2019 on their CD Chimes. They noted:

Originally found in Hymns for the use of the Methodist new connexion, principally from the collection of J. Wesley, a Methodist hymnal from 1836. Our version is adapted from the local Red Book collection of carols in Derbyshire by Jack Goodison.


Waterson:Carthy sing Jacob’s Well

At Jacob’s well, a Stranger sought
His drooping frame to cheer;
Samaria’s daughter little thought
That Jacob’s God was near.

This had she known, her fainting mind
For richer draughts had sigh’d;
Nor had Messiah, ever kind,
Those richer draughts denied.

This ancient well, no glass so true,
Britannia’s image shows:
Now Jesus travels Britain through,
But who the Stranger knows?

Yet Britain must the Stranger know
Or soon her loss deplore;
Behold the living waters flow!
Come drink, and thirst no more.