Hunting the Wren

Gwenzilla gwynfyd at max.tiac.net
Fri Sep 8 09:10:42 PDT 1995


After some discussion about the song "Hunting the Wren," or "The Cutty 
Wren," Ioseph wrote:
> Hi Cirostan MacAppleUser! <grin!>
> 
> I learned it under the name "Billy Barlow" as a kid in N. Carolina.....how
> these songs -do- survive!

I also know the "Billy Barlow" version.

The hunting of the Wren, a very old ritual performed on St. Stephen's Day 
by village children is one of those traditions which, like pace-egging or 
caroling, has no clear beginning date. 

Gregory Blount points out that "Hunt the Wren" is  not listed in British 
Broadside Ballads; you might check under the title "The Cutty Wren," or 
look for songs having to do with the hunting of the wren.

The tradition goes like this:
Children (originally young men, but it's come to mean children) find a 
wren out in the woods, kill it, and put it in a box. They drape the wren 
in purple cloth and decorate the box with cloth and flowers and seasonal 
nifties, and they carry it from door to door, singing another song some of 
you might know, called "The King" which goes something like this:

Joy, health, love and peace be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing concerning our King.
Our king is well dressed in silks of the best ... 
(etc.; I'm sure most of you know it)

There is a lot of speculation as to where the tradition comes from; some 
people say it has pagan roots; your mileage may vary, but it is certainly 
a venerable folk tradition. 

I'm not sure if this is a definitive or even worthwhile source, but the 
song (several versions of it, even) is listed in _The Singing Tradition 
of Child's Popular Ballads_, one of my favorite sources for all kinds of 
good stuff.

A few years ago I ran across a book by Bob Stewart called _Pagan Imagery 
in English Folksong_, which has some interesting things to say about the 
tradition of Hunting the Wren, but I think that book is out of print.

Anyway, that's the meaning of the song-- as to its period relevance, I 
really dont' know, but I suspect that since the tradition is certainly 
period it may be. I will check the dates in Child tonight.

Blessings and music,
Gwen

 Gwen Knighton            gwynfyd at max.tiac.net            (bard for hire)
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