Tis the season for the carols, but…
Posted by 1minionsopinion on November 18, 2009
Who takes the time to look up orgins of them? Well, I did. Here’s a post I did for my own blog about Greensleeves and What Child is This:
The Christmas season is on the doorstep singing the classics so I thought it might be interesting to do a series on the origin of some of the more popular carols.
Let’s start with the reworking of the folk song, Greensleeves.
Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.
Your vows you’ve broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.
I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.
There are a lot more lyrics about all the things he gives her but I’ll skip to the ending – he doesn’t get the girl and he apparently dies still hoping she’ll change her mind. I used to think the song was romantic. Now I think it’s just plain sad. This chick totally let him spend money on her and gave him nothing in return. And still he loved her. Courtly love is a bitch.
History is mixed with mystery for the origins of this song. It’s attributed to King Henry VIII but its style is Italian (“romanesca”) which was largely unknown in England prior to his death. And, since anonymity was common when it came to ballads it’s likely no one will ever know who first composed it. There’s some clue as to when it got noticed, however.
The song was entered as a broadside ballad in the Stationers’ Register as “A newe northern Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves” on Sept. 3, 1580. Now [sic] earlier mention of “Greensleeves” has ever been found. Henry VIII had been dead over 25 years by this this [sic] date.
Other notes on that thread suggest it had ties to a man who fell in love with a prostitute, that “certain girls” wore green on their sleeves to indicate their “career” as it were, but that’s met with some derision, like by this anonymous responder:
First time I’ve heard of it. The lowest sort of prostitutes couldn’t afford anything, they solicited in the alleys. I think that a poorly dressed woman flinging herself at you in the street screaming ‘reasonable rates’ is a better indicator than the color green, especially after dark.
The tune might have preceded the words, as well, and could have been known in Henry VIII’s time, but again, if it’s Italian… Some of them say it’s reminiscent of a jig, one says morris dance, another says it’s a good example of Italian fiddle music that was getting popular at the time and crushing traditional English violin tunes.
Shakespeare mentions it in The Merry Wives of Windsor but I haven’t come across any reference between then and 1865 when William Chatterton Dix decided the tune was nice but the words needed altering.
What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
[CHORUS] This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
At the time,
Christmas was not the celebration it is today. Neither was it a season where many openly celebrated the birth of Christ. Conservative Christian churches forbade gift-giving, decorating, or even acknowledging the day. These Puritan groups feared that if set aside as a special day, Christmas would become a day of pagan rituals more than a very serious time of worship. In this context, it was unusual for Dix to feel moved to write about Christ’s birth, since many hymn writers of the period ignored Christmas altogether.”
Good place to put a relevant quote I found recently:
Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
– H.L. Mencken
It’s sure different today, isn’t it. Now Christians freak if their holy day isn’t celebrated out loud by everybody by name. Looks like the Puritans were right to worry about the pagan influence. Those pagans were such party animals.