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NIU’s 25-year Carol of the Year series concludes with beloved ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’

November 23, 2010

The announcement of the 2010 Carol of the Year is tinged with sadness.

Bill Studwell

Bill Studwell

The planned end of the 25-year series arrives with the news that the creator of the series, William Studwell, did not live to see the project through to its final coda.

Studwell, who worked for 30 years as a library cataloger at NIU, died Aug. 2, succumbing to lymphoma. The day before his death, at age 74, he dictated a letter to his daughter, Laura, of Aurora, providing the noteworthy details pertaining to his 2010 Carol of the Year, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

“It was very important to Dad to see this project through to completion,” says Laura Studwell, noting that her father was rightfully proud of his research and writing pertaining to carols.

His fascination with carols began with a pamphlet about “O Holy Night,” created for a family member in 1972 as part of a “homemade Christmas.” That simple piece set him on a quest, one that consumed more than 6,000 hours of his life, Studwell once estimated. It took him deep into the stacks of libraries across the country. At one point, he had compiled a collection of more than 400 volumes to help him in his research.

His painstaking research provided insight into the stories behind the carols – legends that they were based upon, local flavors that crept into songs and insightful biographical tidbits about the authors. His essays illuminated the works.

The job was not always easy – especially since it was done almost completely pre-Internet.

“For 19th and 20th century works, you can usually find some documentation for a carol, but for 16th century stuff you are happy for any shred of information you find,” Studwell once said. He noted proudly that he was credited with documenting dozens of new facts about carols.

His researching skills earned him the admiration of his peers.

“He’s at the top of the list, in my estimation, of carol experts in the U.S. and perhaps even the world. When it came to learning the background of a carol, Bill was the go-to-guy,” says Ronald Clancy, another esteemed expert in the field of Christmas music. He admired Studwell’s work so much that he recruited him to fine-tune and re-edit the text for his nine-volume Millennium Collection: Glorious Christmas Music, Songs and Carols.

Studwell’s contribution to the body of knowledge on carols, Clancy believes, will help ensure that they endure. “Carols have an interesting history, and he kept that alive. So much of the background of many songs was lost, but he shone a light on it. He helped keep these songs alive and vibrant.”

Doug Anderson, another leading expert in the field, and keeper of the website, shares Clancy’s admiration of Studwell. “His essays on the songs, composers and lyricists of carols are gems of research and composition,” he said in a tribute to Studwell posted on the website.

Ultimately, Studwell wrote four books about carols, edited 29 others and generated more than 50 journal articles on the topic.

Admiration of Studwell’s work likely would have been limited to a small circle of carol devotees had he not invented the Carol of the Year series. Starting in 1986, with “Carol of the Bells,” Studwell honored one carol each year, selecting a well-known Christmas song that was celebrating a significant anniversary of its publication.

The media ate it up. He was interviewed by radio stations across the country and his expertise was featured in publications ranging from small weeklies to the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. By the time of his death, he had been interviewed more than 600 times. He became a popular consultant on projects related to Christmas music, including advising on a recent version of “Scrooge” to ensure that the music was historically correct.

While he was most famous for his work on Christmas carols, Studwell was a prolific writer on other topics as well. He was considered a leading expert on college fight songs and state songs. He also wrote extensively on other musical genres he considered “underappreciated” including circus music, early rock ‘n’ roll and patriotic music. He also wrote several books devoted to classical music, as well as many, many academic papers relating to his field of library sciences.

Carols, however, were a passion for Studwell, who loved the Christmas season, says his daughter. The first few notes of any carol were an invitation to share information about the song from his encyclopedic memory.

His 2010 honoree, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” was selected, he said in the letter dictated shortly before his death, because it provided a fitting cap to the series.

“It is a natural last piece for focus, since it is frequently the final piece in carol performances sessions,” he said of the song, which was created 400 to 425 years ago, most likely in the West Country of England.

Even Studwell’s prodigious researching skills could unearth little more information on the song. Consequently, in his book “The Christmas Carol Reader,” he used his rumination on the piece as an opportunity to reflect on the importance of carols and why he loved them.

“Collectively, no other group of songs appears to have as much influence on Western civilization as do Christmas carols, especially in light of the relatively small number of significant carols that exist. Carols are not limited by age, education, life-style, beliefs, nationality or taste,” he wrote.

“For about one month of each year they strongly envelop all sectors of predominantly Christian nations, and even non-Christian areas are not exempt from their presence. A little song like ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,’ therefore, can have an effect surpassing its intrinsic merits because of its continuing membership in the highly influential club of carols.”