While researching music for the collection, Bishop’s research revealed that before it was a Christmas song, “I Saw Three Ships” was likely an old pub song that folks would sing over drinks.
While he thought the song had a great melody, he found the lyrical content a bit shallow. So he wrote a story to accompany the song — turning it into a narrative recounting a tale of a harbor town that had lost three ships at sea, only to have them return on Christmas morning. Joined by a crowd of talented roots musicians, the new arrangement swells with pride and grandeur and lilts with the trademark triplets of an Irish fiddle tune.
The second song, “Balulalow,” was originally composed as a hymn in 16th century Scotland, the name itself translates to “lullaby.”
While the song itself is almost 500 years old, Bishop’s introduction to it was far more contemporary, with his first introduction coming from a musician by the name of Gordon Sumner, i.e. Sting. “He actually sang it in a more authentic way,” notes Bishop, pointing out that he did some shorthand and re-pronounced some of the lyrics to fit with modern and American pronunciations. “Anything that I sing is going to sound mountain-y, just by virtue of my voice. I can make anything sound bluegrass-y.”
He jokes, but there is nothing immediately “bluegrass-y” about his haunting rendition of this traditional hymn. “The music is so large,” he says, praising the dramatic string arrangement crafted by Cody McVey, “But the message in it is so sweet and small. It really does evoke the power and the majesty of Christ’s birth in that little, lowly manger. You can just see all of heaven lighting up. You can hear that in the music.”