Tug on the door to Merlins Rest on any given day and you’ll be greeted by the scent of freshly fried chips, a glint off well-oiled wood, clinking glasses, and—if you’re very lucky—a cacophony of voices rising in harmony and unfurling like a welcome mat.
For 10 years now, the Longfellow nook better known for its Scotch bible, the occasional bagpiper, and a portal-like ability to channel the British Isles has played host to regular evenings where patrons gather for the sole purpose of singing together.
“Probably our biggest sing of the year is our pub caroling,” says Steven Levine, a longtime die-hard of the unnamed group of singers who found each other through Morris dancing, historical reenactments, and shape-note singing at the bar. “We try very hard not to make it people coming and singing ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Rudolph,’ though we do have kids coming and doing that.”
This year’s event will take place on the afternoon of Sunday, December 15. Unlike other places around town, Merlins’ pub caroling draws from a very specific (and old) tradition that still thrives in the north of England, near Sheffield. You won’t find ditties from American Christmas specials, nor the stuff of angelic choir boys holding candles; miss someone name-dropping the Virgin Mary and one could easily mistake these carols for drinking songs.
“A number of our members had experienced pub caroling in Sheffield, and said we should do that here,” explains Nat Case, a cartographer by trade who was instrumental in the group’s formation a decade ago and now acts as admin for a private Facebook group organizing some of these pub sings.
It all started 11 years ago at the Dubliner with a well-known sea shanty night, when attendees got to thinking about expanding the possibilities of communal singing. They developed a rotating schedule—expanded to involve more pub sings at Merlins—organized around ballads, gospel tunes, carols, and a quarterly wild-card slot (with hyper-specific themes chosen in advance, like “songs of the restless West” or a single Peter Bellamy opera sung front-to-back).
These events aren’t well broadcast beyond Merlins’ events calendar, despite taking place during regular business hours where they often fill half of the pub with anywhere between 50 and 100 participants. Unwitting bar patrons may find themselves enchanted or put off by the rumpus.
Alienating non-singers is a risk both Merlins and the Dubliner are willing to take—and part of what makes them such gems.
“It’s very, very hard to find a commercial establishment that will let you come and sing like that,” says Levine, recounting times they’ve been kicked out of other bars for singing, “but Tracie Munce [Merlins’ general manager] says, ‘No, this is what we want this bar to be.’”
Your author was once one of these accidental bystanders. Watching dozens of individuals harmonize (mostly in tune!) to songs pulled from the ether without the use of notes was spellbinding. Everyone in the room knew the melody and all the words to every song, for hours. It felt impossible, like a heist, and it was a joy to behold.
Speculating from a comfortable distance on how these singers managed the room was great fun, making for one of the warmest afternoons spent at a bar in recent memory. In the end, we figured that’s where the “pub” part came in—that with a little liquid courage, they simply rolled with it in a way few would otherwise hazard.
“I didn’t even realize it was a skill to pick up a chorus and sing it, because I always have—well or otherwise,” Levine says, laughing. But still, leading a song is a skill—and scary for beginners. Part of bringing people into the fold involves catching that glimmer in a spectator’s eye in time to reassure them, “Don’t be afraid—just sing! We don’t know it.”
Back when the group was created, they set forth a few guidelines designed to build an immersive space where it’s possible to lose oneself in sound.
They don’t use books or sheet music. Same for instruments. Anyone may bring a song to sing, so long as it works well unamplified, has a simple chorus, and is meant to have a crowd as backup (which eliminates most music of the past 75 years). And all are welcome, including children, provided they don’t expect coddling (thematic, sonic, or otherwise).
These aren’t rules, per se. “There’s a balance,” says Levine. “The last thing you want to do is anything that puts a roadblock before somebody who really wants to be a part of this. On the other hand, you don’t want... guitars.”
For Case, this structure forms a means to an end. “My experience with this kind of singing had been these moments where I’m just in the middle of a song, the middle of a chorus, essentially, of people singing harmony all around. And that’s my favorite part of the whole thing. Having a spotlight is not the point here.”
In building a community where transcendence comes through blending, a wariness toward rogue guitars and a reverence for breaking the fourth wall in a pub(lic space) make perfect sense.
“You know how at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest where Prospero just sort of gives it back to the audience?” Case asked, referencing the play’s epilogue in which the magician both addresses and accuses the audience of trapping him on stage, entreating them to free him by applauding, pulling one final magic trick by drawing them into the spectacle. “I feel like [these sings are] a relatively low-key way of doing that.”
Levine remains dedicated to the sings beyond the holidays for reasons as ethereal as they are different from Case’s. “What Merlins has provided for me, anyway, is the closest to my imagined fantasies of what this was like in the U.K., where a lot of the tradition came from. It’s romanticization of a time when everybody sang. I mean, that time never really existed, but I’d like to think it did.”
Find them both caroling at Merlins this Sunday, belting their hearts out. Best of luck picking them out in the crowd.
3601 E. Lake Street, Minneapolis