“Levy-Dew”, also known as “A New Year Carol”, or “Residue”, is a British folk song of Welsh origin traditionally sung in New Year celebrations. The song was set to music by Benjamin Britten in 1936. It is associated with a New Year’s Day custom involving sprinkling people with water newly drawn from a well.
(More history and background at the Wikipedia article.)
New Year Carol from Tom Tiddler’s Ground, ed. Walter de la Mare
Here we bring new water from the well so clear,
For to worship God with, this happy New Year.
Chorus (after each verse):
Sing levy-dew, sing levy-dew, the water and the wine,
The seven bright gold wires and the bugles that do shine.
Sing reign of Fair Maid, with gold upon her toe;
Open you the West Door and turn the Old Year go.
Sing reign of Fair Maid, with gold upon her chin;
Open you the East Door and let the New Year in.
New Year Carol / Residue
[trad. arr. Waterson:Carthy]
In 2006, Waterson:Carthy recorded the New Year Carol for their album Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man. Martin Carthy commented in the album’s sleeve notes:
We all had a hand in the “B” music to the New Year carol Residue which opens this album: we also made extra verses for the North and South gates to go with the East and West gates already there and to have more to sing. Norma cannot remember who first handed her the song for the Watersons to sing but, because the letter accompanying the words is signed “from your favourite guitarist”, wonders whether it was an old family friend from the East Riding called Bert Hodgeson. None of us can figure out the possible significance of the “Residue sing Residue” chorus and neither could Bert—or whoever it was—but that was, he said, what was sung to him. (If it wasn’t Bert, and the person who did the deed is reading this, then please reveal yourself.)
These things are driven, one way or another, by passion and two of its faces are on show. Residue can be seen as representative of one which drives ritual; where people perform old ceremonies simply because it is time to do so. These can be seen to be quite private moments for a community which, although there is a line which the outsider may not cross, the wider world is allowed to view and perhaps to share. The community may struggle to supply a meaning for a particular ceremony or make any sense at all of the routine of the thing but that does not matter. What matters is the moment: the reason is the moment. In the field of sacred music where indeed it is often at its most intense, nowhere is this passion seen to soar higher, or felt to flow more deeply than in the Baptist hymns of Sankey where Liza found the beautiful Gloryland which closes this CD.
Waterson:Carthy sing Residue
Chorus (twice after each verse):
Residue sing Residue, the water and the wine,
Seven bright gold wires and the trumpets doth shine.
Here comes the maiden with gold on her toe;
Open the West gate and let the Old Year go.
Here comes the maiden with gold on her shoe;
Open the South gate and let the New Year through.
Here comes the maiden with gold on her chin;
Open the East gate and let the New Year in.
Here comes the maiden with gold in her eye;
Open the North gate and let the Old Year by.
The New Year Carol was included by Walter de la Mare in his anthology of poems for children, Tom Tiddler’s Ground (1931). In 1936, Benjamin Britten composed a tune for it. The “levy dew” in the chorus may be a corruption of either Old English levedy (“lady”) or French Levez à Dieu (“Raise to God”), used for the elevation of the host at communion. The latter also explains the water and the wine in the following words. The “seven bright gold wires” might be the strings of a golden harp.
Waverly Fitzgerald has another explanation in School of the Seasons: New Year’s Carols:
Trefor Owen [Welsh Folk Customs, St. Fagans, 1974] describes the context for this song in Wales. Very early on New Year’s Day about three or four o’clock in the morning, groups of boys came round to the houses in the neighborhood, carrying a vessel of cold spring water, freshly drawn, and twigs of box, holly, myrtle, rosemary or other evergreens. They sprinkled the hands and face of anyone they met for a copper or two. In every house, each room was sprinkled with New Year’s water and the inmates, who were often still in bed, wished a Happy New Year. For this service and wish they were also gifted with coins. The doors of those houses which were closed to them were sprinkled with the water. The verse was sung during the sprinkling.
In certain parts of Wales this custom is called dwr newy (literally, new water). The exact meaning of the phrase, “levy dew” is unknown, although there have been attempts to trace it to llef I Dduw (Welsh for “cry of God”). This seems to be an imposition of a Christian interpretation on a much older custom. Although the fair maid is now equated with the Virgin, Owen thinks it likely that this custom derives from “an early well-cult made acceptable to medieval Christianity by its association with the Virgin and perpetuated both by the desire to wish one’s neighbor well at the beginning of a new year and by the small monetary payment involved.”