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|("Hunting of the Wren")|
|("Hunting of the Wren")|
The Cutty Wren and its variants like The Hunting of the Wren are traditional English folk songs. The origins and meaning of the song are disputed. It is thought by some to represent the human sacrifice of the Year King, or the symbolic substitute slaughter of the wren as "king of the birds" at the end of the year for similar purposes, and such songs are traditionally sung on Boxing Day, just after the winter solstice. These rituals are discussed in The Golden Bough. It is number 236 in the Roud Folk Song Index.
On the other hand, it is also attributed to the English peasants' revolt of 1381, and the wren is supposed to be the young king Richard II, who is killed and fed to the poor. However there is no strong evidence to connect this song with the Peasants' revolt. This idea seems to have originated in A.L. Lloyd's 1944 book The Singing Englishman. The liner notes to Chumbawamba's album English Rebel Songs 1381-1914 state categorically that the song was written in the fourteenth century. However, the earliest known text is from Herd's "Scots Songs" 1776. The song is given no title, but begins with these words:
There is a version in Welsh, "Hela'r Dryw"; also one in Manx ("Helg Yn Dreain"), published by the Manx Society in 1869. In Orkney a version called "The Brethren Three" (published 1915) describes the song as a lullaby. ("We'll aff tae the wids, says Tosie Mosie"). The often quoted "Milder to Moulder" version first appears in Cecil Sharp's "English Folk Songs" (1920), under the title "Green Bushes".
In the USA the song has undergone considerable evolution, into the song "Billy Barlow", first known in 1916.
In Ireland the hunt generally took place on St Stephen's Day (26 December) and the procession that night, lads dressed in bizarre costumes made of straw and colourful cloth carrying branches from which hung the body of the wren, as they sang:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
On St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze
Although he was little, his power is great
So up with the kettle and down with the plate!
On the Isle of Man, up to the end of the eighteenth century, the ceremony was observed on Christmas morning. In Carcassonne (France), in the nineteenth century, it was on the first Sunday in December. The American versions mention a squirrel, rat or other small animal rather than a wren. The Chieftains stage performances have included dancers dressed as Wrenboys, in straw clothes. This has been captured on the album Bells of Dublin, which includes six tracks devoted to the ceremony, singing and dancing.
The Hunting of the Wren is the culmination of the myth of the Wren who kills Cock Robin. On or near the winter solstice the populace hunted and killed the Wren for its supposed misdeed. The custom of killing wrens on December 26 was mostly stamped out in the British Isles by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, according to William S. Walsh in Curiosities of Popular Customs.
In Arnold Wesker's play Chips with Everything (1962), the conscripts sing "The Cutty Wren" with more and more aggression with each verse. This is fairly incomprehensible unless the connection with the Peasants' Revolt is made. Perhaps Wesker had read A.L. Lloyd's book. The two of them had worked together at "Centre 42" in 1960. 1962 was the year in which Ian Campbell decided to include the song on his album Songs of Protest. It is possible that between the three of them they have generated an artificial mythology of a workers' revolt being somehow connected with this song. Maud Karpeles was the first to question Lloyd's proposition.
There is a Breton tune called "The Wren", played by Maggie Sansone on the album A Celtic Fair (2007), but it is not clear if this is related to the ceremony.