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Hunting the Wren
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Hunting the Wren / Billy Barlow
; Master title: Hunting the Wren
; Ballad Index
Roy Palmer: Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs
Joe and Winifred Woods of Douglas, Isle of Man, sang Hunting the Wren in a 1950s field recording by Peter Kennedy on the anthologies Songs of Ceremony (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 9, Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970) and Midwinter (Free Reed, 2006). This recording has all the verses as below sung by Steeleye Span except for the first two; I don’t know if the Woods didn’t sing them or if they were edited out.
Peggy, Penny and Barbara Seeger sang Billy Barlow on their 1959 Topic EP of American children’s songs, Come Along John.
The Elliotts of Birtley sang Billy the Bob in 1961 on their Folkways “musical portrait of a Durham mining family”, The Elliotts of Birtley. The album’s booklet commented:
In most of the English and Scots versions of this strange song the prey is a wren and the hunters a quartet of oddly named individuals who attacked the wren with a veritable arsenal of weapons, carry it home in wagons, cook it in a furnace and feed the body to the poor. A.L. Lloyd has argued, convincingly, that the piece is a codified protest song, possibly dating back to the English peasant revolt. A considerable body of literature exists concerning the hunting of the wren on Christmas/St Stephens Day and it is supposed that the old form of this rhyme was chanted in a ceremonial procession after the wren had been killed. In Jack Elliott’s version of the song, the wren has become a cock-sparrow and details concerning the transportation and roasting of the carcass have disappeared. The celebration theme (with a pint of whisky!) still remains.
The Shenley Court Comprehensive School (Birmingham) Folk Song Group sang Richat and Robet on the 1972 Topic/Impact album of folk songs festive and sociable, Room for Company, that accompanied Roy Palmer’s book of the same name.
Bill Whiting sang I’m Going to the Woods at his home in Longcot, Berkshire in 1972 to Kime Yates. This recording was included in 1975 on the Topic anthology of countryside songs from Southern England, When Sheepshearing’s Done, and in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs and music from the Mike Yates collection, Up in the North and Down in the South. Mike Yates noted on the latter album:
The custom of ‘hunting the wren’ is one of the oldest extant traditions that we have in the British Isles. Scholars, as is usual in such matters, are divided as to its origin. With The Golden Bough in mind, some relate the song’s events to the ritual killing of an animal representing a god. Others see the wren as a symbolic representation of the Old Year being pursued, originally, by a robin, the spirit of the New Year, who sets out with a birch-rod to kill his predecessor. Others see the custom in terms of the peasant’s revolt. Bill cared little for such debate, telling me that it was but a piece of nonsense, to be sung in the village pubs at Christmas.
In Ireland the St Stephen’s Day ‘Wran’ ritual was (is) widely followed, but it doesn’t seem to have been so popular in England—only 18 Roud examples of the song, though they are quite widespread, with two areas of greater popularity in Yorkshire and this Berks/Oxon/Wilts/Glos border region. This will be the only English recording on a CD.
Steeleye Span sang Hunting the Wren on their 1978 farewell live album Live at Last!, then in their short-lived line-up with Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick. This track was also included in 2001 on Martin Carthy’s Free Reed anthology The Carthy Chronicles.
Nowell Sing We Clear sang Hunting the Wren on their 1988 Front Hall album Nowell Sing We Four. They noted:
It was believed that the wren’s song betrayed St. Stephen, hiding from pursuit, to martyrdom. Thus on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, a wren was traditionally killed, and a group of boys would carry it in procession from house to house. Hunting the Wren is our reworking of the wrenning song found in many parts of Britain (and in America, where it survives as Billy Barlow).
John Kirkpatrick et al sang Hunting the Wren on the Folkworks project and subsequent 1998 Fellside CD Wassail!. He noted:
A song with echoes of some sort of sacrificial offering. On the day after Christmas it was the practice to parade around with a recently killed wren ceremonially displayed, with this as the accompanying song. In return for a contribution you were given a feather from the wren for good luck. When all the feathers were gone, you would have a feast, and then bury its bones, gaining strength from the King of the Birds.
Versions of considerable variation have been found all over the British Isles, and this one was recorded from Joe & Winifred Woods, of Douglas, Isle of Man, by Leslie Daiken in the 1940s.
Jim Eldon sang Robin to Bobbin on his and Lynette Eldon’s eopnymous 1997 album Jim & Lynette Eldon.
The Waterson Family with Mike Waterson in lead sang I Found a Bird’s Nest on 15 August 2010 at a concert at Hull Truck Theatre that celebrated Norma Waterson’s 71st birthday. A recording of this concert was released in the following year on their DVD Live at Hull Truck.
Jim Causley sang Hunting the King on his 2018 album A Causley Christmas.
Compare this to The Cutty Wren on Steeleye Span’s album Time, to Martin Carthy’s The Wren on his album Prince Heathen, and to the Watersons singing Joy, Health, Love and Peace on their seasonal album Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy.
Note that Hunting the Wren on Lankum’s 2019 Rough Trade album The Livelong Day is a different song written by Ian Lynch.
Bill Whiting sings I’m Going to the Woods
“For I’m going to the woods,” said Richard-a-Robin,
“I’m going to the woods,” said Robert t’ Bobbin,
“I’m going to the woods,” said John alone,
“I’m going to the woods,” boys, everyone.
“What shall us do there?”
“We’ll shoot a wren”
“How shall us gett’en home?”
“We’ll get a cart”
“We’ll have a feast”
“Now, we’ve had a feast”
“We must bury the remains”
Steeleye Span, also John Kirkpatrick, sing Hunting the Wren
“We’ll hunt the wren,” says Robin to Bobbin,
“We’ll hunt the wren,” says Richard to Robin,
“We’ll hunt the wren,” says Jack of the land,
“We’ll hunt the wren,” says everyone.
“Where oh where?” says Robin to Bobbin,
“Where oh where?” says Richard to Robin,
“Where oh where?” says Jack of the land,
“Where oh where?” says everyone.
“In yonder green bush,” …
“How get him down?” …
“With sticks and stones,” …
“How get him home?” …
“The brewer’s big cart,” …
“How’ll we eat him?” …
“With knifes and forks,” …
“Who’ll come to the dinner?” …
“The King and the Queen,” …
“Eyes to the blind,” [says Robin to Bobbin,]
“Legs to the lame,” [says Richard to Robin,]
“Luck to the poor,” [says Jack of the land,]
“Bones to the dogs,” says everyone.
The wren, the wren is king of the birds
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze
Although he is little his family is great
We pray you, good people to give us a treat.
[Come out with the money, mister, or else bad health we’ll we singing.
We pray you, good people, to give us a treat.]
(Note: The words in brackets are sung and spoken in John Kirkpatrick’s version only.)