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The Cherry Tree Carol / As Joseph Was A-Walking

[ Roud 453 ; Child 54 ; G/D 2:327 ; Ballad Index C054 , C054A ; CherryTree at Old Songs ; VWML CJS2/10/2069 ; Bodleian Roud 453 ; GlosTrad Roud 453 ; Wiltshire 1215 ; DT CHERTREE , CHERTRE2 ; Mudcat 11760 ; trad.]

Everyman’s Book of British Ballads Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs Songs of the Midlands The Oxford Book of Ballads Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians

The Cherry Tree Carol is a ballad with the rare distinction of being both a Christmas carol and one of the Child Ballads (#54). The song itself is very old, reportedly being sung, in some form, at the Feast of Corpus Christi in the early 15th century. The versions eventually collected by Francis James Child are thought to be a combination of up to three separate carols that merged together through the centuries.

John Partridge of Cinderford, Gloucestershire, sang The Cherry Tree Carol to Maud Karpeles and Patrick Shuldham-Shaw on 22 August 1952 (BBC recording 18618). This recording or another one made by Peter Kennedy in the 1950s can be found on the anthology Songs of Christmas (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 9; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

A.L. Lloyd sang The Cherry Tree Carol in 1956 on his and Ewan MacColl’s Riverside anthology The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Volume III. Together with all others of his songs from this series it was reissued in 2011 on his Fellside anthology Bramble Briars and Beams of the Sun.

Isla Cameron sang The Cherry Tree Carol in 1956 on her Tradition Records album Through Bushes and Briars.

Shirley Collins sang The Cherry Tree Carol on a live Christmas Day 1957 Broadcast on BBC Radio masterminded by Alan Lomax. It was published in 2000 on the Alan Lomax Collection on the Rounder label as Sing Christmas and the Turn of the Year. This track was also included in 2006 on the Free Reed anthology Midwinter.

Two years later, in 1959, Shirley Collins sang The Cherry Tree Carol on her first LP, Sweet England, and in 1964 together with Davy Graham on their LP Folk Roots, New Routes. She also recorded it in 1969 with the Young Tradition, but the resulting album The Holly Bears the Crown wasn’t published until 1995. This track was also included on Shirley Collins’ anthologies Within Sound (2002) and The Classic Collection (2004).

The Valley Folk sang both The Cherry Tree and Oh, Mary With Her Young Son in 1968 on their Topic album of carols for all seasons, All Bells in Paradise. A.L. Lloyd noted on The Cherry Tree:

One of the most popular of all carols, appearing over and again on broadsides and in penny song-books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The lively little story is based on a legend in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew—concerning a date-palm, by the way, not a cherry-tree. It was dramatised to form a scene in a fifteenth century Coventry market-square play called The Miraculous Birth or the Midwives. The medieval playwright added a point of sly peasant wit by coupling Joseph’s ill-humour to an insinuation of Mary’s infidelity, and many traditional versions repeat this as: “Up then spoke Joseph in words rude and wild: Let him gather thee cherries as put thee with child.” The present version was obtained by Alice Gillington from gypsies in Hampshire, in the first decade of this century. Stephen Heap and Elaine Carruthers sing it as a duet.

and on Oh, Mary With Her Young Son:

This odd solemn and poetic dialogue between Mary and her knowing child was attached, in the past, to the Cherry Tree Carol [It’s in Bronson, Child 54 Appendix, item #31, as Mary’s Question]. Many eighteenth century broadsides printed that carol in three parts—the walk in the orchard, the angel’s announcement to Joseph about the impending birth, and Mary’s question with the infant’s ominous answer. In that threefold form it appeared in Hone’s Ancient Mysteries Described (1823) though it has seldom turned up so complete in tradition (all the same, an unusually full version was obtained by Cecil Sharp at Camborne, Cornwall, in 1913). The theory has been advanced that, just as Mary with her young son is but a broken-off fragment of the Cherry Tree, so the Cherry Tree itself is but a fragment of a long ballad reciting a whole string of legends of Jesus’s birth, life, death and resurrection, and that in fact most of the legendary carols we know, such as Herod and the Cock, The Carnal and the Crane, The Bitter Withy, may at one time have formed part of a single long epic-type religious ballad.

Pentangle sang The Cherry Tree Carol in 1972 on their album Solomon’s Seal.

Nowell Sing We Clear learned The Cherry Tree Carol “from the Ritchie family of Kentucky”, and sang it in 1977 on their eponymous first album Nowell Sing We Clear. This track was also included in 1989 on their anthology The Best of Nowell Sing We Clear 1975-1986. They returned to this carol in 1988 on their album Nowell Sing We Four.

John Kirkpatrick sang The Cherry Tree Carol on his albums Among the Many Attractions at the Show Will Be a Really High Class Band (1976) and Carolling and Crumpets (2006). Rosie Cross sang The Cherry Tree Carol on John Kirkpatrick et al’s Folkworks project and subsequent 1998 Fellside CD Wassail!. John Kirkpatrick noted:

Nature bending, quite literally, to the power of God. This lovely story of great magic at work has been around for over a thousand years, and a song for at least half that. This version was recorded in the 1940s by Peter Kennedy, also as part of the BBC project, from John Partridge of Cinderford, Gloucestershire, whose family had had the song for generations.

Sandra Kerr sang the Cherry Tree Carol in 1983 on her Pukka album Supermum.

Coope Boyes & Simpson, Fi Fraser, Jo Freya, and Georgina Boyes sang The Cherry Tree Carol in 2003 on their No Masters CD Fire and Sleet and Candlelight.

Magpie Lane sang The Cherry Tree Carol on their 2006 album of carols, songs and tunes for the Christmas season, Knock at the Knocker, Ring at the Bell.

Waterson:Carthy recorded the Cherry Tree Carol for their 2006 album Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man. Martin Carthy commented in the album’s sleeve notes:

The Apocryphal Gospels are full of all sorts of stories about the Christ Child; stories of miracles performed as a child, and, in the case of The Cherry Tree Carol, pre partum from the womb. The tune comes from the Mr Robert Hughes, who was in Buckingham Workhouse, and the words, for the most part, from a Mr Thomas in Camborne in Cornwall and the two sit next to each other in Maud Karpeles’ fine two volume set of selections from Cecil Sharp’s manuscripts.

The Album Christmas Band sang The Cherry Tree Carol on their Talking Elephant albums Snow on Snow (2008), Traditional (2009), and on their 2014 compilation The Carols.

Kerfuffle sang Cherry Tree Carol in 2009 on their midwinter album Lighten the Dark.

Broom Bezzums with Kate Doherty sang The Cherry Tree Carol on their 2012 album Winterman.

Diana Collier sang Cherry Tree Carol unaccompanied on her 2015 album All Mortals at Rest.

Emily Sanders, Chris Parkinson and Pete Morton sang Cherry Tree Carol in 2016 on their Fellside CD The Magical Christmas Tree.

Kirsty Merryn sang Cherry Tree Carol unaccompanied in 2018 on her download single Cherry Tree Carol.

The Furrow Collective learned The Cherry Tree Carol, from the singing of John Partridge of Gloucestershire [1952, see above] and sang it on their 2022 Christmas EP The Longest Night.

Cooper and Toller sang The Cherry Tree Carol, on their 2023 album A Number of Work. They noted:

Roud 453, Child 54. The tune for our version of this old carol comes from Mary Anne Clayton of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, collected by Cecil Sharp in 1909 [VWML CJS2/10/2069] . The biblical story appears in New Testament Apocrypha, where the tree is a fig, and then in the Coventry Mystery Plays where it becomes a cherry. The song starts in soap-opera style with Joseph reacting in a predictable manner to his wife’s announcement of her pregnancy, but then gets a bit weird when Jesus starts doing magic and answering Joseph’s questions from inside the womb.

A Joseph Was A-Walking

Paul Sartin sang Cherry Tree Carol and A Joseph Was A-Walking in 2009 on Belshazzar’s Feast’s WildGoose album Frost Bites. He noted:

In this Appalachian version of the ubiquitous song, the story of which is derived from St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ birthday is given as 5th January, the date of Christmas day in the Old Style or Julian calendar between 1752 and 1799. Taken down from William Wooton at Hindman, Knott County, Kentucky by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles and printed in their 80 English Folk Songs.

A Joseph Was A-Walking is an adaptation of an old Breton carol, from the Second Book of Carols by Ralph Dunstan, published in 1925.

This A Joseph Was A-Walking is quite a different song from the Cherry Tree Carol but Steve Roud catalogues all songs beginning with “As Joseph was a-walking, he heard an angel sing” with the same number 453.


Shirley Collins sings The Cherry Tree Carol

Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
When he married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee.

As Mary and Joseph were walking one day
To an orchard of cherry trees they happened to stray.

Then Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild,
“Pick me some cherries, Joseph, for I am with child.”

Then Joseph flew angry, so angry flew he,
“Let the father of your baby gather cherries for thee.”

The up spoke Lord Jesus from in his mother’s womb,
“Bow low down, cherry trees, bow down to the ground.”

And the cherry trees bowed down, bowed low to the ground,
And Mary gathered cherries while Joseph stood round.

Then Joseph he kneeled down and a question gave he,
“Come tell me, pretty baby, when your birthday shall be.”

“On the fifth day of January my birthday shall be,
And the stars in the heaven shall all bow down to me.”

Waterson:Carthy sing the Cherry Tree Carol

Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
When he married sweet Mary, she’s Queen of Galilee.

Now Joseph had wedded Mary and home had her brought.
Mary proved with child but Joseph knew her not.

Oh, Joseph and Mary went walking in the grove,
They saw cherries and berries as red as any rose.

And up spoke young Mary, so meek and so mild,
“Oh, pick me cherries, Joseph, for I am with child.”

Then Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he,
“Let the father of your baby pick cherries for thee.”

The up spoke the baby Jesus, all in his mother’s womb,
“Bow down low, you cherry tree, let my mother have some.”

And the very tall branches bowed low to her knee,
And Mary picked cherries by one, two and three.

Now Mary had a young son which she dandled on her knee,
“Come tell me, sweet baby, what will this world be?”

“Oh, this world,” he said, “is no other than stones in the street
But the sun, moon, and stars will sail under thy feet.

“And I must not be rocked in silver or gold
But in some wooden cradle like the babes are rocked all.

“And on the sixth day of January my birthday will be,
When the skies and the elements will tremble for me.”

Paul Sartin sings A Joseph Was A-Walking

As Joseph was a-walking he heard an Angel sing:
“This night there shall be born our gracious Heav’nly King;
He neither shall be born in housen nor in hall,
Nor in the place of Paradise, but in an ox’s stall.

“He neither shall be clothed in purple nor in pall;
But all in fair white linen as wear sweet babies all.
He neither shall be rocked in silver nor in gold;
But in a wooden cradle that rocks upon the mould.

“He neither shall be christen’d in white wine nor in red;
But with the fair spring water with which we were christ’ned.”
As Joseph was a-walking, thus did the Angel sing;
And Mary’s Child at midnight was born to be our King.

The shepherds heard these tidings, rejoicing much in mind;
And went to Bethlem straightway, the Son of God to find.
Then, Christians, be ye merry, rejoice, give thanks, and sing;
For on this blessed morning is born our Heav’nly King.