A suitably sombre song for Good Friday. I learned this many, many years ago from the singing of Norma Waterson on the Watersons’ seminal 1965 LP Frost and Fire. (A note for the uninitiated: it is a legal requirement that certain album titles be preceded by the word “seminal”, and Frost and Fire is certainly one of those).
The sleeve notes to the LP, written by A.L. Lloyd, say:
This spring-time ballad-carol tells a story based on the Apocryphal Gospels, concerning a trip made by Mary to see her son at Calvary, in the company of seven virgins. The opening recalls the handsome illuminations in the Arundel Psalter, showing the sombre tree of death with its dismal birds, and the dazzling tree of life with iridescent leaves. The parallel between the death and resurrection of Christ and the ritual slaying and renewal of the divine kings of pagan belief (echoed in the mumming plays) needs no stressing.
The carol is included in A Good Christmas Box, published in Dudley in 1847 (although clearly this is not actually a Christmas carol). Sharp and Vaughan Williams both collected a number of versions, all in Shropshire and Herefordshire. Vaughan Williams included the carol in Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire and then in the Oxford Book of Carols. The notes to the latter say:
Melody and a version of the text from Mrs Whatton and Mrs Loveridge, The Homme, Dilwyn. From Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire (Leather and Vaughan Williams), Stainer & Bell. Cf Popular Carols, by F Sidwick (Sidwick and Jackson). This fine example of the way in which a mystical vision is created by the best folk-poetry appeared in the Staffordshire A Good Christmas Box. 1847, Sylvester (1861) printed a version of it from an ‘old Birmingham broadside’. Sir A Quiller-Couch included it in the Oxford Book of English Verse, and Walter de la Mare in Come Hither.
In really important news yesterday, the English Folk Dance & Song Society announced that they had been successful in applying for funding to proceed with the Full English project. This will digitise and make freely available the folk song collections of Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams, Lucy Broadwood and a host of others. So in future, if we want for instance to check out all of the collected versions of this song, we will be able to do so at the click of a mouse. Excellent news.
One of the versions which Vaughan Williams collected came from the gypsy singer Mrs Esther Smith, mother of May Bradley, from whom Fred Hamer recorded the song some 50 years later. You can hear May Bradley sing the song on the Musical Traditions CD Sweet Swansea.
The Leaves of Life