The Souling Songs - souling for souls

Before I purr on and on about the Souling Song, I’d like to wish my soul friend, Lady Bats, a happy birthday today. Happy All Births Day. In her words, she and I are “carved from the same pumpkin.”

Don’t we count ourselves very lucky and blessed to have good friends? She is a friend who is supernally kind – the most important quality in people I choose to be around. And it’s an added bonus that she’s a Halloween connoisseur like me. We both enjoy very elegant Halloweens. She’s the Pumpkin Queen of Utah and England (she’s from Utah, her husband is from England), and she’s also my “Vampire in Waiting.” (Maybe I’ll marry some lad from Norway, so I can be the Californian Viking Pumpkin Queen.)

We’re going to grow up to be old cat ladies together. She likes to rub her face in Molly just like I do. (For those of you who don’t know, Molly is my cat. My Halloween cat.)

I would wish good, kind friends like her upon everyone. Soul Friends.

OK, now on to the Souling Songs on my Halloween CD. These songs aren’t about soul friends, directly, but they are about those departed souls whom we memorialize and welcome during the Halloween/Day of the Dead/Samhain season (and many of us do have dearly departed soul friends and family).

I’ll start with my research on “The Souling Song” (also known as “Soul Cake” and “Soalin’ Song” and “A’ Soalin’”) which is an All Souls Day (Nov. 2) tradition, and then go back in time to the Celtic Samhain traditions about which I wrote a new version of the song.

It’s funny how many “flukes” have happened during my Halloween Carols™ project. One fluke led to my discovering the “Souling Song.” On my first release, Arachnitect (2008), I arranged the traditional tune, “Ghost of John,” into two versions, adding four more original verses. In thinking about which songs to put on my second release, I thought another traditional song would be fun. I didn’t know of any more traditional Halloween songs, but I thought about changing the words to a traditional tune.

Many of us grew up with the tune, “Rose, Rose, Rose, Rose, Will I Ever See Thee Wed?” As I mention in this year’s CD liner notes, other people know the tune as “Hey Ho, Nobody Home.” Well, this tune is so pretty and so likable, I thought it might be fun to change the words to something like, “Rose, Rose, Rose, Rose, Will I Ever See Thee Dead?” as a sort of meditation on romance and mortality and how death can just get in the way of things.

I started to research this old tune online, and what did my wondering eyes fall upon? Why, something too coincidental to call a coincidence. This tune had also taken on some traditional All Souls Day lyrics!

I nearly coughed and sputtered, it was such an astounding and surprising discovery.

Well, the creative fires really got burning then. In Lesley’s and Jack’s books, and online, there are different versions and snippets of the traditional words (Lesley Bannatyne and Jack Santino – my two favorite Halloween researchers – I highly recommend their books.) Online, I found another tune associated with the words – the “Cheshire” tune.

Here are links to the two tunes I worked from:;ttSOULCAKE.html

There are more words associated with this song that I found in books, but couldn’t find the melody to go with them, like:

Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate,

Crying for butter to butter his cake.

Up with your kettles and down with your pans!

Give us our souling and we’ll be gone!

So I wrote new melodies to glue the whole song together. You’ll also see that I altered the old melodies quite a bit. I put the “All Hallows Version” in 2/4 and the “Samhain Version” in 6/8.

I didn’t use all the words I found in my research, because then the song would be too long, and I don’t want to put my Trick-or-Treaters to sleep. And I tried to keep the All Souls Day meaning, because this song is also associated with Christmas as a caroling song. Those hearty carolers from centuries ago, wassailing around town, hoping for beer and whatever else the homes had to offer – it makes me laugh as I picture the old traditions and antics of overly merry people.

And, yes, do you see the connection? Christmas caroling and trick-or-treating. As Jack Santino points out in his book, The Hallowed Eve, the lines between Halloween and Christmas in Irish tradition are blurred. This blurring happens in varying degrees throughout the British Isles. Depending on the area of these isles, the caroling or pre-trick-or-treating tradition was called guising or mumming. This involved EARNING the treats with a song or skit, not just begging like we do in modern, American trick-or-treating. (Also, think about the ancient Celts leaving out food for the visiting dead, and our tradition of leaving out food for Santa Claus.)

In getting my bearings on this traditional song, I discovered some other artists’ versions. Here’s Peter, Paul, and Mary:

The Watersons:

Sting does a version:

And here are some other versions:

Interesting how some versions have Halloween associations and others have Christmas associations. That’s history to my ears.

The two versions I arranged I call the “All Hallows Version” and the “Samhain Version.” To explain, I’ll quote from my CD’s liner notes:

“’Souling’ grew as a begging tradition – offering to pray for someone’s beloved departed in purgatory in exchange for a ‘soul cake’ …

“The idea to do two arrangements struck me when I realized that this song could clearly outline two of the cultural forces behind Halloween – paganism and Christianity. As I studied and played around with the Cheshire tune, I had an epiphany: the beginning notes are the same as the medieval plainchant Dies Irae – ‘Day or Wrath’ or ‘Day of Judgment.’ It struck me as plausible that this tune could be a corruption of the chant, a folk simplification of the meaning behind the ‘souling’ tradition – praying for the dead in purgatory, for Judgment Day is coming.

“The traditional words that I use in the ‘All Hallows Version’ present the early Christian viewpoint of the living who pray for the dead. And then I thought, ‘Well, what do the dead think?’ Medieval Christians thought they were in purgatory. The Celtic pagans a few centuries before thought they could come and visit on the eve of Samhain. Because both traditions involve food, I thought soul cakes the perfect crux to musically explain two different viewpoints that swirl together to create modern Halloween. And so I wrote new words for the ‘Samhain Version’ to explain this.”

Another little insight that I don’t mention in my liner notes is that the Cheshire tune could be called a “Totentanz” – a Dance of Death. It might be a bit of a stretch, but I argue this because the topic concerns the dead and the rhythm is 6/8, which is a dancing rhythm, a jig. The Dance of Death (also known as “Danse Macabre”) is a well-known medieval metaphor for the universality of death, that it comes for us all, regardless of station, age, or character.

Recording the “All Hallows Version” was a solo job like most of the songs on my CD. Listen for the Dies Irae chant in the bells toward the end. These bell sounds come from a combination of several tracks.

Recording the “Samhain Version” was a party because I hired Jamie Glaser and Micah Anderson. Jamie recorded the guitars and bass. He is so, so, so skilled. He double-tracked the rhythm guitar like it was nothing. The recording session was so much fun and had such energy about it. I was dancing about like a barefoot pagan as I was conducting him from the score (he’s a mighty fast reader; he was known as the fastest reader for sessions when he lived in L.A.).

Micah Anderson programmed the drums for me. And he introduced me to my new favorite music term – the flam (when the drums are smacked just barely off-beat from each other). He’s a very skilled musician. We worked so well together, I felt like we’d been friends for many years. I told him the overall ideas and drum timbres I wanted in the beats and we smacked out the rhythms on the floor and the desk until it worked. He did a fantastic job of really capturing the character of the song; he totally understood it, that it was meant to be an epic song. He joked that it needed to be played live in an arena to a bunch of head-banging pirates.

If you would like to know more about these two fabulous musicians, here they are:

So there’s an epic blog to go with an epic song. Here are the words for both versions:

ALL HALLOWS VERSION (traditional words)

Soul Day, Soul Day, we be come a‘ souling,

Pray, good people, remember the poor,

And give us a soul cake.


Soul, soul, a soul cake!

Please, good lady, a soul cake!

An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,

Any good thing to make us merry.

Soul, soul, a soul cake!

Pray we for a soul cake!

One for Peter, two for Paul,

And three for Him who made us all.

God bless the master of this house, the mistress also,

And all the little children who ‘round your table grow.

Likewise, your men and maidens, your cattle and your store,

And all that dwell within your gates, we wish you ten times more.

Souling Day, so we pray for the souls departed.

Pray give us a cake,

For we are all poor people well-known to you before.

Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate

Crying for butter, to butter his cake.

Up with your kettles and down with your pans,

And give us our souling, and we’ll be gone.

Down into the cellar, and see what you can find.

If your barrels are not empty, we hope you will prove kind.

We hope you will prove kind with your apples and your grain,

And we’ll come no more a’ souling ‘til this month comes again.

Soul Day, Soul Day, we have been praying

For the souls departed, so pray good people, give us a cake.

So give us a cake for charity’s sake

And a blessing we’ll leave at your door.

SAMHAIN VERSION (my original words)


Soul, soul, soul cakes!

We come hunting for soul cakes!

We are dead, but like we said,

On this night we’ll take your bread

And while you’re out of your abode,

Lighting fires of Samhain old,

Think of us, out of body –

As we are, you, too, shall be.

Samhain Night, at long last,

We parade from ages past –

A journey from the Otherworld –

Oh, the hairs that we have curled!

Winter’s Eve surrounds us,

Its open portal astounds us.

We creep into the living sphere

And see where memories summon here.

Find us in this coldness,

Visiting with much boldness.

Share your food; we’ll share our power

To discern a future hour.

Summer’s End, Summer’s End –

Will the sun return, vital warmth to send?

Summer’s End, Summer’s End –

Darkness lengthens in its stride across the sleeping land.

Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate,

Offering goblins and demons his cake.

Up with the chill and down with the sun,

Waning and waning, the Dark Half’s begun.

All this night as boundaries untie,

Visitors friendly and frightful stop by.

Up with your mask and down with your feet,

Marching and marching to lead out the fleet.

How about this dwelling?

Its offerings are compelling,

With drinks and cakes and porridge,

And cherries and berries from storage.

Rattles at your door!

Don’t be scared, but give us some more!

A banshee or a fershee might delight by new firelight.