“Soul Cake” by Sting
Sting’s “Soul Cake” is based on an English tradition of baking soul cakes which was directly associated with Halloween. Back in those days, instead of trick-or-treating per se children (as well as the poor) would go door-to-door during Allhallowtide, singing and offering prayers for homeowners. And an item they traditionally received as compensation are these soul cakes. And generally speaking, the practice of begging for these pastries is known as Souling.
So this particular tune is actually a Souling song. Its lyrics date back to the late 19th century, as it was used by the aforementioned individuals to make requests for soul cakes. But Sting’s version has been modified, if you will, to accommodate the Christmas holiday as opposed to Halloween. Thus the simplest way to describe “Soul Cake” is as it being a Christmas carol.
Thus the chorus consists of the singer requesting some of the titular treats for himself as well as two individuals, “Peter” and “Paul”, who read as if they are his buddies, i.e. fellow carolers. However, this may also serve as a shoutout to the Biblical characters of the same name. Indeed the singer requests the addressee give “three for Him that made us all”, which of course is a reference to God. And that alludes to the general idea of why these snacks were referred to as soul cakes in the first place, as they were idealized as being spiritual in nature, as in serving the ritualistic purpose of commemorating the dead. But on top of that the singer is also requesting “an apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry”. So it becomes pretty obvious from the onset that the narrator is a needy individual.
Then he goes about blessing the inhabitants of the household he is visiting, as well as the “cattle” and “dogs”, in addition to “all that dwell within your gates”. And considering that he uses the term “we will wish”, it’s also apparent that he is part of group of carolers.
Then in the second verse he is telling the householder to rummage throughout the dwelling to ‘see what he can find’ that can be given to the carolers. Yet he is not requesting just any item but rather an “apple”, “pear” or something of the food variety, which of course also includes “a soul cake”.
And in the third verse he also makes a request for money, even “a half penny”. This is where it becomes most evident that the narrator is indeed impoverished, as he gives specific details of how such is manifest. But at the end of the day he is also quite merry, as he still goes on to bless the addressee, even if he doesn’t receive the dough he is requesting.
So conclusively, the two prevailing sentiments in this song are good cheer and sympathy. The singer, despite his challenging circumstances, is coming with glad tidings. However, his ultimate goal is to receive charity. And given his aforementioned circumstances as well as the generally good spirits he is in, the listener can’t help but to feel sorry of him. So this song is an outstanding example of Souling (i.e. caroling) for a good reason, as it evokes the desired response of making the addressee want to give to the singer.
A Cover Song
As stated earlier, the lyrics of this song are based on a traditional Souling song which was first published in 1893. And in 1963 Peter, Paul and Mary, a folk band, used those lyrics for a track they dropped entitled “A’ Soalin”. So “Soul Cake” is actually a cover, so to speak, of the Peter, Paul and Mary song.
Release Date of “Soul Cake”
“Soul Cake” itself came out on 21 October 2009 as part of Sting’s album “If on a Winter’s Night…”
Writing Credits for “Soul Cake”
The credited writers are Tracey Batteast, Elena Mezetti and Paul Stookey. Paul Stookey is the “Paul” of Peter, Paul and Mary.