One of the most charmingly poignant of all English Christmas carols is also one of the oldest, a fitting companion in both its age and its source to "The Bitter Withy", which was the subject of my Christmas post two years ago. Both carols date at least to the middle of the fifteenth century and almost surely even earlier since each song appears in both handwritten and printed copies in Middle English, that odd hybrid of Anglo-Saxon and Old French that was the percursor of the Modern English that emerged around the time of Shakespeare. Yes, as an English teacher for 40 years I am well aware that lots of people think of Willie Shakes as "old English," but his work really isn't that at all. Most of us can make easy sense of at least half of what Shakespeare wrote simply by listening closely to good actors perform his plays or recite his poems. How hard is "To be or not to be..." or "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun" to understand, grammatically at least? Want a bit of genuine Old English to chew on a bit this fine Christmas morn? OK, try this on for size:
Fæder ūre, ðū ðē eart on heofonum,
Sī ðīn nama gehālgod.
Tō becume ðīn rice.
Gewurde ðīn willa
On eorþan swā swā on heofonum.
Got it, right? Plain as day, no? OK - even in Shakespeare's time, those five lines were incomprehensible to the average person and were translated from that 9th century Old English to this, although with slightly different spelling:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed by Thy name.
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
As grad students like myself decades ago could attest, Middle English is tough but much less of a challenge. For example, here is the opening of "The Cherry Tree Carol" in one of its earliest printed versions, from about 1478, shortly after William Caxton brought the first Gutenberg printing press to England. Jesus' mother-to-be Mary speaks first:
A my swete husbond, wold ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?
You scarcely need me to tell you that Mary is saying "Ah, my sweet husband, would you tell me/What tree is yonder standing upon yon hill?" Even at that, Middle English was a thing of the past a generation or two before Shakespeare's 1564 birth - but its grammar, syntax, much of its vocabulary, and certainly its aural rhythms were so close to our own language that a) most of us could go back to 1478 and after a few days of adjusting our pronunciation and adding some now-archaic words to our repertoire, we could make ourselves understood, and b) many poems and songs like "The Bitter Withy" and "The Cherry Tree Carol" transitioned fairly easily from Middle to Modern English.
The source for "The Cherry Tree Carol" is likely the same Apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew that also provided the major plot points for "The Bitter Withy," though as with that song as discussed in the article linked above, the English composers adjusted the stories and their details to the landscape of Britain. But just as "Withy" conflated some details of the apocryphal story and changed others outright, "Cherry Tree" alters the time, place, and circumstance of the earlier tale. Cherry trees were as uncommon in the ancient Middle East as they are common in England and across most all of northern Europe, and the analogous story in Pseudo-Matthew has baby Jesus commanding a much more geographically-correct palm tree - a date palm, presumably - to bestow its fruit in his mother's lap. Virtually no one in late medieval England would have ever seen a date or a palm, so cherries made an admirable and familiar substitution, with the added advantage of a kind of archetypal fertility symbolism as well.
"Withy" and "Cherry Tree," however, part company to a degree in the nature of their emphases. "The Bitter Withy," you may recall, has a little boy Jesus building a bridge of sunbeams with which to entice some disdainful rich lads to play with him. Jesus' divinity enables him to do this and to prance across the bridge, while the other boys plunge to their deaths when they try to follow him. Now, the divinity element was a given in any Jesus story that appeared by the eighth century date of Pseudo-Matthew, but even then the question of whether the infinite God could be truly a finite human was still a matter of (secret) debate. "Withy" comes down emphatically on the "yes" side, with little Jesus experiencing and reacting to some very recognizable human emotions: desire for companionship, sadness over rejection, anger, and resentment of his mother's punishment of his misdeeds. "Cherry Tree," however, invents a non-canonical miracle when infant Jesus, still in utero, commands the aforementioned cherry tree to yield its fruit to his mother, who is suffering the scorn and rejection of her husband, who has just learned that she is pregnant with a child he knows is not his. Little fetus Jesus is thus shown to have the full power of the God of Nature and a preternatural ability to talk, and the net effect is to stress that this is no ordinary mortal boy.
The first version of "The Cherry Tree Carol" that I recall hearing remains my favorite. It was Mike Kobluk's solo on The (Chad) Mitchell Trio's 1965 LP, Typical American Boys:
Kobluk is a marvelous interpretive singer, as this track demonstrates. His lead on the CMT's ensemble performance of Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" is a large part of why I believe that cut to be the finest version of the song ever recorded.
"Cherry Tree" is arguably more deeply embedded in the English aural landscape than it is in the American, so it is to me no surprise that Gordon Sumner/Sting does as fine a job with it as he does here:
I had liked Sting's work fronting The Police in the early 1980s, but with the release of his Ten Summoner's Tales album a decade later, I became a major fan as I realized both how much of a genuinely literary background this former secondary-level English teacher had, and how skillfully he had integrated significant elements of British Isles balladry into his writing. "Fields Of Gold" from 1993's Summoner's Tales is a nearly perfect amalgam of a kind of Romantic-era poetic sensibility with the structure of a 14th century Middle English ballad. Quite an achievement, really - and a key to how he can translate this old song into his own vocal style and idiom.
Now I don't need much of an excuse ever to include a Judy Collins performance in these posts; she is one of the greatest singers of my lifetime, and like her contemporaries Linda Ronstadt and Joan Baez, she has worked her vocal magic across a variety of genres and styles. But Collins brings something special to ballad-based folk tunes, most especially I think when she deals with a protagonist in the lyrics who is a female, often one in some sort of travail. "Anathea" and "In The Hills Of Shiloh" from her early repertoire spring instantly to mind. That sensibility lends an immediate and striking pathos to the lyrics of "The Cherry Tree Carol," with Collins here in a 1996 performance at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina:
The source story in Pseudo-Matthew creates a different context for the miracle than does "Cherry Tree." Instead of the latter's journey during Joseph and Mary's betrothal period, the Pseudo-Matthew context is the Flight Into Egypt, when the Holy Family as it came to be termed is fleeing from the murderous wrath of King Herod (see last year's "Coventry Carol" post for more on this delightful character). Both J and M are suffering from thirst and hunger, and that prompts infant Jesus to command the palm tree to bow down and give them its fruit and to "open a veyne" to supply them with water as well. There is no recrimmination here regarding the parentage of Jesus, and it is that aspect of the cherry tree tune - emanating as it does from Joseph's moral rectitude - that adds the element of pathos to Mary's silent suffering of an understandable but unjust accusation, as well as her wonder at the miracle and her resolute determination as she "went home with her heavy load" of cherries. Judy Collins' sensitive reading captures all of that quite effectively here.
For something entirely different, here is The Mark O'Connor Bluegrass Band with an instrumental rendition:
O'Connor's group is adept at creating the more usual blazing bluegrass sound in the rest of its repertoire, but I think that it takes a stroke of imaginative musical genius to recognize the idea that the standard bluegrass instrumental blend could be put to so quiet and moving a rendition. "The Cherry Tree Carol" not surprisingly does appear here and there in southern Appalachian folklore, though not at all as O'Connor and his band present it.
There are scores of variations on the lyrics of "The Cherry Tree Carol" across the English-speaking world, and a YouTube search will turn up more than a hundred recording and performance videos of the number, a significant percentage of which are by large chorales and classical orchestras. But "The Cherry Tree Carol" came into existence as an acoustic folk song, as we would term it today, and that is why I greatly prefer the simplicity inherent in these four renditions. The ancient roots of the song and its hauntingly beautiful melody make it a companion worthy to stand with its better-known relatives in the body of music associated with Christmas.
*The first seven songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes include #1 - "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"; #2 - "All Through The Night/Ar Hyd Y Nos"; #3 - "When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year"; #4 - "Gloucestershire Wassail Song"; #5 - "Sing We Here Noel"; #6 - "The Bitter Withy/Mary Mild"; and #7 - "The Coventry Carol."
Other Christmas-themed articles on CompVid101 include "The White Snows Of Winter", "Children, Go Where I Send Thee", "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy", "Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".