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Hunting the Wren

[ Roud 236 ; Ballad Index K078 , FO059 ; Wiltshire 202 ; trad.]

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 except for the first two; I don't know if the Woods didn't sing them or if they were edited out.

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.

John Kirkpatrick et al sang the Wassail Song 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.

Compare this to The Cutty Wren on Steeleye Span's album Time, to this Martin Carthy's The Wren on his album Prince Heathen, and the Watersons singing Joy, Health, Love and Peace on their seasonal album Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy.

Lyrics

Steeleye Span and 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.)