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Seven Virgins, or The Leaves of Life

[ Roud 127 ; Ballad Index OBB111 ; trad.]

Seven Virgins, or The Leaves of Life is an English Passion carol, based on the gospel of John (John 19:26-27), that was not included in the Child ballads. The first mention of this song dates back to 1847. It was also collected by Cecil Sharp in 1923 and later by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was recorded to a different tune by Ewan MacColl on the Riverside anthology Great British Ballads Not Included in the Child Collection. Kenneth F. Goldstein commented in the album's booklet:

In the ballad-carol of The Seven Virgins, we have another story based on the Apocryphal Gospels. The ballad tells of the trip made by Mary to see her son at Calvary and of her attendance by seven virgins. Various versions of the Pseudo-Gospels make references to three, or five, virgins attending Christ's mother, and it is possible that the reference to “seven virgins” is an oral corruption of the Seven Virgins frequently referred to in post-medieval manuscripts (see JFSS, VII, pp. 283-286).

The earliest known text is from a small Manx manuscript carol-book with watermarks of 1826 and 1829, and was written down about 1830. It first appeared in print in a Staffordshire chapbook, A Good Christmas Box, published in 1847, and it is probable that most versions of The Seven Virgins that have been recorded from tradition were learned from this chapbook collection. Various 19th century broadsides of the ballad may also have played a part in standardising the text in circulation.

The version sung by MacColl is primarily the chapbook version mentioned above, with a few emendations from Enoch Pickering, of Teague's Bridge, Salop. The tune was collected in 1923 by Cecil Sharp from Samson Price, of Salop.

Norma Waterson sang Seven Virgins on the Watersons' 1965 LP Frost and Fire, reissued on CD in 1990. A.L. Lloyd commented in the album's sleeve notes:

This spring-time ballad-carol tells a story based on the Apocryphal Gospels, concerning a trip made by Mary to see her son at Calvary, in the company of seven virgins. The opening recalls the handsome illuminations in the Arundel Psalter, showing the sombre tree of death with its dismal birds, and the dazzling tree of life with iridescent leaves. The parallel between the death and resurrection of Christ and the ritual slaying and renewal of the divine kings of pagan belief (echoed in the mumming plays) needs no stressing. Norma Waterson sings it.

Martin Carthy sang The Leaves of Life in 1966 on the eponymous music magazine compilation LP Folk Scene as one of his very first solo recordings. This track was also included in 2001 on his 4CD anthology The Carthy Chronicles.

Sandy Denny recorded The Seven Virgins ca. 1966-67 as a home demo. This recording was included in 2010 on the Sandy Denny Box Set. Another recording in Alex Campbell's house at 19 Rupert St, Glasgow on August 5, 1967 was published in 2011 on the CD 19 Rupert St.

One of the versions which Vaughan Williams collected came from the gypsy singer Mrs Esther Smith. She was the mother of May Bradley from whom Fred Hamer recorded the song in the private room of a pub in Ludlow, Shropshire, on April 12, 1966. This recording was included as Under the Leaves in 1967 in Hamer's book Garners Gay, in 1998 on the VWML album The Leaves of Life: The Field Recordings of Fred Hamer and in the same year on the Topic anthology My Father's the King of the Gypsies (The Voice of the People Series Volume 11), and, as The Leaves of Life, in 2010 on May Bradley's Musical Traditions anthology Sweet Swansea.

The Druids sang The Leaves of Life in 1972 on their Argo album Pastime With Good Company.

John Roberts, Tony Barrand, Fred Breunig and Steve Woodruff sang The Leaves of Life in 1980 on their album To Welcome In the Spring.

Mick Ryan and Pete Harris sang Leaves of Life in 1999 on their WildGoose album Hard Season.

Martin Simpson sang Leaves of Life in 2001 on his Topic CD The Bramble Briar.

Paul and Liz Davenport sang The Leaves of Life in 2006 on their first album, Under the Leaves.

The Devil's Interval (Lauren McCormick, Emily Portman and Jim Causley) sang The Leaves of Life in 2006 on their WildGoose CD Blood and Honey. They commented in their liner notes:

This Biblical story contains elements of apocryphal imagery. The rose and the fern create a landscape far removed from the Bible lands, showing how such storied became localised and thus relevant to the singers' familiar surroundings.

Our version comes from the wonderfully haunting singing of May Bradley, a Shropshire Traveller.

This video shows them at Loughborough Folk Festival in 2008:

Coope Boyes & Simpson sang The Leaves of Life on a bonus track of the 2011 reissue of their album of regional and historical carols, Fire and Sleet and Candlelight.

June Tabor and the Oysterband sang The Leaves of Life in 2011 on their Topic CD Ragged Kingdom.

Andy Turner learned The Leaves of Life from the singing of the Watersons and sang it as the April 6, 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

John Kirkpatrick sang Under the Leaves of Life in 2012 on his Fledg'ling CD Every Mortal Place. The album title is from a phrase in this song.

Lyrics

May Bradley sing The Leaves of Life

It's all under the leaves and the leaves of life
Where I saw maidens from heaven,
And it's one of those were Mary mild
Was our king's mother from heaven.

Then she asked me what was I looking for
All under the leaves of life?
“I am looking for sweet Jesus Christ
With his body nailed to a tree.”

“Dear mother, dear mother, don't you weep for me
For weeping does me some harm.
For it's I may suffer for you dear mother
When you are dead and gone.

“Dear mother, dear mother for you must love John
For John's been an angel so bright.
But it's now I shall suffer for death, dear mother,
When you are dead and gone.”

“Go you down, go you down to yonder little town
As far as you can see,
And it's there you will find sweet Jesus Christ
With his body nailed to a tree.”

There's a rose, and a rose, and a gentile rose
The rose that grows so green,
God will give us grace in every mortal place
For to pray to our heavenly guide.

The Watersons sing Seven Virgins

All under the leaves and the leaves of life
I met with virgins seven.
And one of them was Mary mild,
Our Lord's best mother in Heaven.

“Oh what are you seeking you seven pretty maids
All under the leaves of life?”
“We are seeking for no leaves, Thomas,
But for a friend of thine.”

“Go down, go down into yonder town,
The city of Galilee,*
And there you'll see sweet Jesus Christ,
Nailed to a big yew tree.”

So down they went into yonder town
As fast as foot could fall.
And many a bitter and grievous tear
From them virgins' eyes did fall.

“Oh peace mother oh peace mother
Your weeping does me grieve.
But I will suffer this,” he said,
For Adam and for Eve.”

“Oh how can I my weeping leave
My sorrows undergo?
While I do see my own son die
And sons I have no more.”

He's laid his head on his right shoulder
And death has struck him nigh.
“The Holy Ghost be with your soul
Sweet mother now I die.”

Oh the rose the gentle rose
The fennel it grows so strong.
Amen, good Lord, your charity
Is the ending of my song.

Notes and Acknowledgements

Transcribed from the singing of the Watersons by Garry Gillard.

* I corrected a mondegreen in the third verse where Norma actually sang “and sit in the gallery”.