Christmas carol expert Bill Studwell can quote the lyrics to hundreds of yuletide tunes, but these days, he doesn't spend much time singing holiday songs on strangers' doorsteps.

"Urban paranoia has gotten so bad now, if you walk up to someone's house singing, you might get met with a shotgun blast," Studwell said, only half joking. "Besides, I'm almost 60, and I can't take the cold weather any more."Carolers may be an endangered species in some areas, but traditional Christmas carols are more popular than ever, Studwell added.

"Now that people are getting more conservative, they are getting more interested in old stuff," Studwell said. "And Christmas has become such a dominant religious and secular holiday that even bad carols without much substance, like `All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,' endure year after year."

The Northern Illinois University professor and data base cataloger, who lives in Sycamore, Ill., has been researching and writing about carols for more than 20 years.

Considered to be one the country's foremost authorities on Christmas carols, Studwell developed an interest in holiday music while working on a master's degree in history in the late 1950s. When he had to come up with a homemade Christmas present for a family gift exchange, Studwell produced a pamphlet on the background of "O Holy Night" and became further hooked on the history of yuletide tunes.

Since then, he has had 50 articles on carols published in music magazines and scholarly journals and has written two books on carols, with a third in the works. Haworth Press, a Binghamton, N.Y., firm that specializes in scholarly and professional material, hopes to publish Studwell's "The Christmas Carol Reader" in time for the 1995 Christmas season.

Most of the company's books are purchased by libraries and academics, but Haworth Press managing editor Bill Palmer predicted that "The Christmas Carol Reader," a collection of essays on 140 carols, could have a general potential.

According to Studwell, carols date back to the 4th Century, but weren't written down until the Middle Ages.

"For the first thousand years, all carols were religious songs written in Latin and Greek," Studwell said. "Then around the year 1300, they started to appear in national languages like English, French, Polish and German, and some of them were secular. A lot of carols started out as secular dance tunes. `Good King Wenceslas' originally was a Northern European spring song from the 13th Century."

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The golden age for carols, Studwell added, was around the 16th Century, when "The First Noel," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and other classics were written, often penned by composers now long forgotten.

"Carols are the domain of the obscure," said Studwell, who has ferreted out more than 4,000 but believes that as many as 20,000 may have been written.

Given his interest in carols - he has even written a few - one might assume that Studwell can't get enough of those holiday sounds.

"Actually, I only play carols at home on Christmas Day," Studwell admitted. "I get tired of hearing them sometimes, especially when stores start playing Christmas songs before Thanksgiving."

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