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. Roud 236.
The rebellious wren?
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 of England
, who is killed and fed to the poor. However there is no strong evidence to connect this song with the Peasant's 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, taking a more sober, scholarly approach, the earliest known text is from Herd's "Scots Songs" 1776. The song is given no title, but begins with these words:
- Will ze go to the wood? quo' FOZIE MOZIE;
- Will ze go to the wood? quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE;
- Will ze go to the wood? quo' FOSLIN'ene;
- Will ze go to the wood? quo' brither and kin.
- What to do there? quo' FOZIE MOZIE;
- What to do there? quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE;
- What to do there? quo' FOSLIN'ene;
- What to do there? quo' brither and kin.
- To slay the WREN, quo' FOZIE MOZIE:
- To slay the WREN, quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE:
- To slay the WREN, quo' FOSLIN'ene:
- To slay the WREN, quo' brither and kin.
There is a version in Welsh ("Helg Yn Dreain"), published by the Manx Society in 1869. In the Orkneys, 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 Christmas day, with the procession taking place on St Stephen's day (26th December). On the Isle of Man, up to the end of the eighteenth century, the ceremony was observed on Christmas morning. In Carcasone (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 the album "Bells of Dublin", which includes 6 tracks devoted to the ceremony, singing and dancing.
Chips with Everything
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 we make the connection with the Peasants' revolt. 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.
- "American Folk Songs for Children", Pete Seeger 1953 , as "Billy Barlow"
- "The Lark in the Morning", Liam Clancy 1955, as "The Wran Song"
- "Texas Folksongs", Alan Lomax 1958, as "Billy Barlow"
- "Songs of Protest", The Ian Campbell Folk Group 1962, as "The Cutty Wren"
- "So Much for Dreaming", Ian and Sylvia 1967 as "Cutty Wren".
- "Prince Heathen", Martin Carthy 1969, as "The Wren"
- "Please to See the King", Steeleye Span 1972, as "The King"
- "No Relation", Royston and Heather Wood 1977, as "The Cutty Wren"
- "Sound Sound Your Instruments of Joy", The Watersons 1977, as "Joy, Health, Love and Peace"
- "Live At Last," Steeleye Span 1978, as "Hunting The Wren."
- "Winter's Turning", Robin Williamson 1986, as "Hunting the Wren"
- "English Rebel Songs 1381-1914", Chumbawamba 1988, as "The Cutty Wren"
- "Oranges and Lemmings" (Les Barker), Martin Carthy and June Tabor 1990, as "Hunting the Cutty Wren"
- "Bells of Dublin", The Chieftains 1991, 6 tracks
- "The Day Dawn", Boys of the Lough 1994, medley of 4 Scots and Irish wren tunes
- "Time," Steeleye Span 1996, as "The Cutty Wren."
- "Wassail!", John Kirkpatrick 1998, as "Hunting the Wren"
- "Up in the North, Down in the South" Bill Whiting (VA) 2001 as "I'm Going to the Woods"
- "Ballad of America volume 2", Matthew Sabatella 2006, as "Billy Barlow"
There is a Breton tune called "The Wren", played by Maggie Sansome on the album "A Celtic Fair" (2007), but it is not clear if this is related to the ceremony.
- Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood Hunting the Wren...Transformation of Bird to Symbol 1997 ISBN 0-87049-960-2