Week 272 – The Bitter Withy

I’m not sure why this song popped up in my head a few weeks back. I used to sing it occasionally a long time ago – mostly just around the house or in the car – having absorbed it from Mike Waterson’s irrepressibly individualistic recording on The Watersons’ LP  Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy. Having decided to resurrect the song, I thought I’d check out other versions. I wasn’t sure if it was one of those songs which is widely sung in the folk revival, but rarely if ever collected from tradition. Actually the VWML Archive Catalogue shows that it has been quite widely collected – but particularly in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.

The words – often a bit garbled (“up Lincull and down Lincull”) – were sung to a variety of good tunes, both major and minor. Unable to decide between them, I then had a listen to the version from gypsy singer Charlotte Smith on the Topic/Caedmon album Songs of Christmas/Ceremony (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 9) and immediately decided that was the one for me. It’s a very simple tune, with a span of less than an octave, but it really got its hooks into me. I don’t know how many verses Charlotte Smith sang to Peter Kennedy when he recorded her at Tarrington in Herefordshire in October 1952; only two appear on the Topic LP, and Kennedy’s recording doesn’t appear to be available on the British Library website. So I started to compile my own set of words, from the versions accessible via the Full English, and those printed in old FSS / EFDSS Journals. But I soon realised

  • the words I’d learned (perhaps misremembered) from Mike Waterson were very firmly lodged in my brain
  • I was unlikely to assemble a better set of lyrics

so it just made sense to carry on singing the same words I had always sung.

A.L.Loyd, from whom I imagine Mike Waterson learned this song, was very taken with the idea of the working class Christ teaching a lesson to the three snobbish young aristocrats who refuse to play ball with him (see Folk Song in England page 116-118, and Lloyd’s album notes reproduced at https://mainlynorfolk.info/lloyd/songs/thebitterwithy.html). And the picture painted here of a young Jesus who misbehaves, just like any other child, and gets a thrashing from his mother for his pains, is very much at odds with the portrayal of Jesus in Victorian Christmas carols, where “no crying he makes”, and “Christian children all should be, Mild, obedient, good as He”. As this is a carol I’ve always associated it with with Christmas, but of course there’s nothing remotely Christmassy about it. Indeed I feel very strongly that songs about Jesus drowning a bunch of stuck-up rich kids really are not just for Christmas…

 

The Bitter Withy

Mural from the monastery church on the summit of Bahar Dar, Lake Tana, Ethiopia.

Mural from the monastery church on the summit of Bahar Dar, Lake Tana, Ethiopia.

Max Ernst: The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter (1926)

Max Ernst: The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter (1926)

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