Of Greensleeves and Christmas Carol Karma

Regular readers will recall that at the start of the  season, I posted a wee diatribe on how much I hate what passes for Christmas music in most of the stores. http://wp.me/pYql4-1tv

Here’s where karma part comes in:  Mary is organizing a Christmas dinner for a large number of people at a local church.  I already volunteered to help with food prep, but the other day she gave me a further assignment.   “I need you to make a three hour playlist of Christmas music, and it has to be respectful.”

That actually is not a problem.  I love Christmas music – if I didn’t, the stuff in the stores wouldn’t bother me.  As I started to rummage through what I have on iTunes, I got caught up in listening to various versions of “Greensleeves,” and wondering – even though I love the song – what it has to do with Christmas.  Tracking its origins was not unlike researching a folktale.  I also found that everyone from Homer Simpson to John Coltrane has covered it, so I invite you to have a listen as I share a bit of what I learned about this haunting song.  Let’s begin with Homer (relax – his clip is only 14 seconds long).

Greensleeves is a traditional English folksong, of the sort known as a “romanesca.”  A broadside ballad of this name was registered at the London Stationer’s Company in Sept., 1580, as “A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves”.  A broadside was a ballad or poem, printed on one side of a cheap sheet of paper and common between the 15th and 19th centuries.  Here is a traditional version, sung by Méav Ní Mhaolchatha’s on the Celtic Woman tour:

There’s a persistant rumor that Henry VIII wrote the song while courting Anne Boleyn, since at first she apparently “cast [him] off discourteously,” but music experts dismiss the legend.  Greensleeves is an Elizabethan song, composed in an Italianate style that did not reach England until after Henry’s death.

Another common interpretation is that the song refers to a promiscuous woman or a prostitute.  At the time, the color green had sexual connotations.  One translator of Chaucer notes that in the Canterbury Tales, green “was the colour of lightness in love.”  I tend to agree with this interpretation based on what I know of pre-Christian nature religion in the British isles, and the Pan-like “Green Man,” whose face still peeks out at worshipers in many British churches and cathedrals:

Green Man at Dore Abbey, Herefordshire

A reference to Greensleeves in The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1602, suggests both the popularity of the song, and coming from Falstaff, a bawdy interpretation.  The popularity of the song has continued unbroken to the present day.  Here my favorite modern interpretation, by Jethro Tull:

In 1865, William Chatterton Dix wrote “What Child is This,” to the tune of Greensleeves, which made both songs popular during the Christmas season.  Here is the version I’m going to use for the Christmas dinner project.  Josh Groban knows how to stir the soul, and that is something we really need this year.  Elizabethan renditions of Greensleeves have historical interest but tend to be slow and even lugubrious.  Much as I love ballads of trials and woe, this year we need all the hope we can get and the kind of music that can awaken it.


I wish each and every one of you a joyous holiday in whatever way you celebrate it.  I’m going to take a blogging break for a week or so, to walk, to read, to meditate, to catch some of the great year end movies, and in general, to simply kick back for R&R.  I will be back right around the new year.

Peace to all of you!

2 thoughts on “Of Greensleeves and Christmas Carol Karma

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