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The Bitter Withy

[ Roud 452 ; Ballad Index L689 ; VWML CJS2/9/3329 , CJS2/10/4832 ; trad.]

Traveller Charlotte Smith of Tarrington, Hereford, and William Payne of Gloucester sang the carol The Bitter Withy in 1952 recordings made by Peter Kennedy respective Maud Karpeles and Peter Kennedy. An amalgamation of both versions was included on the anthology Songs of Christmas/Ceremony (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 9; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

A.L. Lloyd sang The Bitter Withy in several recordings: unaccompanied in the 1950s on his 78 rpm record Down in Yon Forest / The Bitter Withy and on his and Ewan MacColl's 1956 Riverside album Great British Ballads Not Included in the Child Collection, and, accompanied by Alf Edwards playing concertina, on his and Ewan MacColl's 1964 album English and Scottish Folk Ballads. He commented in the last album notes:

English country folk in the past showed themselves to be attracted to many “unofficial” scriptural legends, notably to those that depicted Biblical characters acting like European rustics, and most particularly to those that held an element of social protest or at least of egalitarianism. Thus, for instance, in the famous Cherry Tree Carol, Joseph speaks like a true peasant husband when he and his pregnant wife are making their way through the orchard, and Mary asks him to gather her some cherries, and we are told:

Up then spoke Joseph, with words rude and wild:
“Let him gather thee cherries that put thee with child.”

The Bitter Withy carol is likewise peopled with figures out of the rural landscape of medieval England—the child playing ball in the street, the snobbish young rich boys who scorn him, the rich young mothers who run with their tale of disaster, and the angry mother who chastises her child by laying him across her knee and thrashing him. The Bitter Withy (a carol without any connection with Christmas) remained one of the most favoured of English folk songs until very recent years, perhaps on account of its social content: the fact that it it, the snobbish young lords receive their “comeuppance” at the hands if the Infant Jesus seems to have endeared the carol to countless generations of humble singers. The tradition of Jesus supporting himself on a sunbeam, and his companions trying to do so and fatally falling, is to be found in the Apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, and also in a 13th century English manuscript containing rhymed legends of the life of Jesus. A fresco in the church of San Martino in Lucca, Italy, shows the Virgin Mary chastising the young Jesus. (…) The incident of Christ's cursing the willow in the last verse, is not doubt a folklorish attempt to explain a natural phenomen: it is a fact that the willow is very prone to “perish at the heart”.

The carol seems to have survived best in Hereford and Shropshire, where Vaughan Williams obtained more than half a dozen versions in 1908-9. The present tune is hexachordal (consisting of six adjacent steps), and of the major character.

Sarah Porter sang The Bitter Withy in 1965 at The Three Cups, Punnetts Town. This recording by Brian Matthews was included in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs from country pubs in Sussex, Just Another Saturday Night.

Peter Bellamy sang The Bitter Withy in 1968 on the Young Tradition's last LP, Galleries, and on April 28, 1981 in a Valley Folk recording for Radio WFCR. This was included in 1999 on his Free Reed anthology Wake the Vaulted Echoes. Heather Wood commented:

Peter learned this version from Audrey Coppard. It gives a far more believable picture of Jesus Christ than most of the ballads of his childhood.

The Valley Folk sang The Bitter Withy in 1968 on their Topic album of carols for all seasons, All Bells in Paradise.

Alice Webb sang The Bitter Willow to Peter Shepheard in her caravan at Apperley Lock, near Tewkesbury, at Christmas 1968, and Lemmie Brazil sang it to Shepheard at the Sandhurst Lane caravan site, Gloucester, at Christmas 1972. Both recordings were included in 2007 on the Brazil Family's Musical Traditions anthology Down By the Old Riverside.

Roy Bailey sang Bitter Withy in 1971 on his eponymous album on the Trailer label, Roy Bailey.

George Deacon and Marion Ross sang The Bitter Withy in 1973 on their Transatlantic album Sweet William's Ghost.

Dave Burland sang The Bitter Withy on his 1975 album Songs and Buttered Haycocks.

Martin Simpson sang The Bitter Withy in 1976 on his first album, Golden Vanity, which was released on the Trailer label.

Muckram Wakes sang The Bitter Withy in 1976 on their eponymous Trailer album Muckram Wakes

Nowell Sing We Clear learned The Bitter Withy from the singing of Louis Killen and sang it in 1977 on their eponymous album of mid-winter carols, Nowell Sing We Clear, and in 1995 on their CD Hail Smiling Morn!.

Mike Waterson sang The Bitter Withy on the Watersons' LP of 1977 and CD of 2007, Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy. This recording was also included 1990 on their 1990 CD reissue of Frost and Fire.

Dave Totterdell sang The Bitter Withy on the 1978 anthology Mrs Casey's Choice.

Maddy Prior recorded Bitter Withy in 1997 for her album Flesh and Blood and sang it in a 2006 concert that was released a year later as the CD and DVD The Quest. She commented in the former album's notes:

The tradition has always presented an alternative to orthodox dogma, both social and religious. This story of the boy Jesus portrays him as all too human, and the does not accord with the given Bible image. It strikes me as a parable concerning power and the need for everyone to learn how to use it.

I first heard this song from the lovely rhythmic singing of Roy Bailey, but I finally tracked it down in Bert Lloyd's Folk Song in England, a must for anyone interested in folk music.

Tom and Barbara Brown sang Bitter Withy in 2002 on their WildGoose CD Prevailing Winds. They commented in their liner notes:

A song from Apocryphal legend which seems to have lasted longest among gypsy and traveller singers. I learnt the song from Redd Sullivan who, with Martin Winsor, was (perhaps surprisingly) a significant influence on the juvenile folksong revival in Cornwall and North Devon. Redd's style of singing the song was much slower and looser than is usually the case and I find I prefer it that way.

John Tams sang Bitter Withy on his 2005 Topic CD The Reckoning and on the charity anthology Huntingdon Folk 4.

The Albion Christmas Band with Kellie While singing recorded Bitter Withy in 2006 for their CD Winter Songs. This track was also included in 2014 on their compilation The Carols.

Lisa Knapp sang The Bitter Withy in 2007 on her CD Wild and Undaunted.

Hannah James sang The Bitter Withy, “collected by Cecil Sharp from Thomas Taylor at Ross Workhouse, Herefordshire in 1921” on Kerfuffle's 2009 midwinter album Lighten the Dark.

Stephanie Hladowski and Chris Joynes sang The Bitter Withy in 2012 on their CD The Wild Wild Berry. They commented:

The Bitter Withy is a carol traced to the 15th century and is based on a story occurring in the c. 1st–4th century Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Verses 2–3 as identified in The Suppressed Gospels and Epistles of the Original New Testament of Jesus the Christ by Archbishop William Wake (1657–1737).

Bernie Cherry sang Bitter Withy on his 2013 Musical Traditions anthology With Powder, Shot and Gun. He is cited in the album's booklet:

I got this from the Bill Payne recording in about 1969, and it's been one of my core songs ever since.

The Demon Barbers learned Bitter Withy from the singing of Mike Waterson and recorded it in 2015 for their CD Disco at the Tavern.

Lyrics

A.L. Lloyd sings The Bitter Withy Peter Bellamy sings The Bitter Withy

As it fell out on a bright holiday
Small hail from the sky did fall;
Our Saviour asked his mother dear
If he might go and play at ball.

As it fell out upon a bright holiday
Small hail from the sky did fall;
Our Saviour asked his mother dear
If he might play at ball.

“At ball? At ball? My own dear son?
It's time that you were gone;
Don't let me hear of any complaints
At night when you come home.”

“At ball? At ball? My own dear son?
It's time that you was gone,
But don't let me hear of any doings
Tonight when you return.”

So up the hill and down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour ran
Until he met three rich lords',
“Good morning to each one.”

So it's up the hill, and down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour ran,
Until he met three rich young lords
All playing in the sun.

“Good morn, good morn, good morn,” said they,
“Good morning,” then said he,
“And which of you three rich young lords
Will play at ball with me?”

“Good morn, good morn, good morn”, cried they,
“Good morning,” oh says he,
“And which one of you three rich young lords
Will play at ball with me?”

“We are all lords' and ladies' sons
Born in a bower and hall,
And you are nothing but a poor maid's child
Born in an ox's stall.”

“Well, we're all lords' and ladies' sons,
All born in a bower and hall,
And you are nothing but a Jewish child
Born in an oxen stall”

Sweet Jesus turned him round about,
He did neither laugh nor smile,
But the tears came trickling from his eyes
Like water from the sky.

“If you're all lords' and ladies' sons
Born in your bower and hall,
I'll make you believe in your latter end
I'm an angel above you all”

“Well, though you're lords' and ladies' sons
All born in your bower and hall
I'll prove to you at your latter end
I'm an angel above you all”

So he made him a bridge of the beams of the sun
And over the water ran he;
The rich young lords chased after him
And drowned they were all three.

So he built him a bridge from the beams of the sun
And over the river danced he;
Them rich young lords followed after him
And drowned they was all three.

So up the hill and down the hill
Three rich young mothers ran
Saying, “Mary mild, fetch home your child
For ours he's drowned each one.”

So it's up the hill and down the hill
Three rich young mothers run
Crying “Mary mild, fetch you home your child
For ours he's drowned each one.”

“Oh I've been down in yonder town
Far as the holy well,
I took away three sinful souls
And dipped them deep in hell.”

Then Mary mild, she took her child
And laid him across her knee
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him slashes three.

So Mary mild fetched home her child,
She laid him across her knee
And with a bundle of withy twigs
She gave him thrashes three.

“Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy
You've caused me to smart.
And the withy shall be the very first tree
To perish at the heart.”

“Oh bitter withy. oh bitter withy
That causes me to smart.
Oh the withy shall be very first tree
To perish at the heart.”

Mike Waterson sings The Bitter Withy Maddy Prior sings The Bitter Withy

As it fell out upon a bright holiday
Small hail from the sky did fall;
Our Saviour asked his mother mild,
“Can I go and play at the ball?”

As I fell out on a bright holiday
Small hail from the sky did fall;
Our Saviour asked his mother dear
If he might go and play at ball.

“At the ball, the ball, my own dear son?
It's time that you was gone,
But it's don't let me hear of any mischief
At night when you come home.”

“At ball? At ball? My own dear son?
It's time that you were gone,
And don't let me hear any mischief
At night when you come home.”

So it's up the hill and it's down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour ran,
Until he come to three rich lords' sons,
“Good morning sirs, each one.”

So it's up the hill, and down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour run,
Until he met three rich young lords,
“Good morning” to each one.

“Good morn, good morn and good morn,” says they,
“It's thrice good morn,” says he,
“And it's which of you three rich lords' sons
Is gonna play at the ball with me?”

“Good morn, good morn, good morn”, said they,
“Good morning,” then said he,
“And which one of you three rich young lords
Will play at the ball with me?”

“Why, we, we're lords', we're ladies' sons
Born in a bower or hall,
But you, you're nothing but a poor maid's child
You was born in an ox's stall.”

“Ah, we're all lords' and ladies' sons
Born in a bower and hall
And you are naught but a poor maid's child
Born in an ox's stall.”

“Well, if I'm nothing but a poor maid's child
Born in an ox's stall,
I'll make you believe in your latter end
That I'm an angel above you all.”

“If I am naught but a poor maid's child
Born in an ox's stall,
I'll make you believe at your latter end
I'm an angel above you all.”

And so he built him a bridge with the rays of the sun,
Over the river ran he;
Them three rich lords' sons, they followed him
And it's drowned they were all three.

So he made a bridge of beams of the sun
And over the river ran he;
And after him ran these rich young lords
And drowned they all three.

And it's up the hill and it's down the hill
Three weeping mothers ran,
Saying, “Mary mild, take home your child
For ours he's drowned each one.”

Then it's up the hill, and it's down the hill
Three rich young mothers run
Crying “Mary mild, fetch home her child
For ours he's drowned each one.”

And so it's Mary mild, she took home her child,
She laid him across her knee,
And it's with a switch of the bitter withy
Why she's given him slashes three.

So Mary mild fetched home her child
And laid him across her knee,
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him lashes three.

“Oh, bitter withy, oh, bitter withy
You caused me to smart,
And now the willow shall be the very first tree
Gonna perish at the heart.”

“Ah bitter withy. Ah bitter withy
That causes me to smart,
And the withy shall be very first tree
To perish at the heart.”

Acknowledgements

Transcribed from the singing of Mike Waterson by Garry Gillard.