One song to the tune of another: early music common practice, 800 years before Humph

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A classic Clue line-up, left to right: Tim Brooke-Taylor, Humphrey Lyttelton, Barry Cryer, Willie Rushton, Graeme Garden.

Listeners to BBC Radio 4’s long-running antidote to panel games, I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, will be familiar with the round, one song to the tune of another. The joke is predicated on us being used to thinking ‘These are the words and this is the tune and they belong together’. The uniting of these separated elements is made funnier by an extreme contrast of styles: the words of Girlfriend In A Coma to the tune of Tiptoe Through The Tulips; the words of A Whiter Shade of Pale to the tune of The Muppet Show; the words of Ugly Duckling to the tune of Harry Nilsson’s Without You.

The stock-in-trade of the show is satire, the programme itself being a satire of panel games. Clue has been going since 1972, chaired for nearly all of that time by late jazz trumpeter, Humphrey Lyttelton, known to cast and listeners as Humph. What Humph and the rest of the panel may not have known is that the principle of one song to the tune of another, with sometimes wildly contrasting words fitted to the same tune, was widely used in early music, the earliest evidence for which stretches back 800 years before even Humph was on air. This article, with illustrative music videos, traces the history of the practice from 16th and 17th century broadside ballads back to medieval carols, to songs with both secular and religious sets of words, and to the iconoclastic musical comedy of the goliards.

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Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 3 of 3: Music

The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune

Left to right: Adrien le Roy, French lutenist, one composer of passamezzo antico; William Kimber, English morris dancer and concertina player, one player of Bacca Pipes; Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer of Fantasia on Greensleeves; John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist, and Nomansland, trance dance band, both performers of Greensleeves.
Left to right: Adrien le Roy, French lutenist, one composer of a passamezzo antico; William Kimber, English morris dancer and concertina player, one player of Bacca Pipes; Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer of Fantasia on Greensleeves; John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist, and Nomansland, trance dance band, both performers of Greensleeves.

Greensleeves has captured the imagination of musicians for well over four centuries, testified by innumerous versions. This, the third of three articles about the mythology, history and music of Greensleeves, gives an audio flavour of the remarkable versatility and vitality of the melody and song, an à la carte menu to choose from. We begin with versions of the passamezzo antico and romanesca which are the foundation of Greensleeves; then advance to the song on period instruments; the Playford dance; two Greensleeves morris dances; the Christmas song; Ralph Vaughan Williams’ classical version; then a range of more modern interpretations: folk, blues, bluegrass, country, pop, rock, punk, black metal, jazz, flamenco, disco, trance, dubstep, Vietnamese ballet … and the ice cream van tune.

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Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 2 of 3: History

The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune  

One of the first sources for the tune, in lute tablature as greene sleues in MS. 408/2, an anonymous amateur anthology dated c. 1592–1603.
One of the first sources for the tune, in lute tablature as greene sleues in MS. 408/2, an anonymous amateur anthology dated c. 1592–1603. (All images, click for higher resolution.)

Greensleeves is well over four centuries old and is, even now, still going strong. This is a song first published in 1580, its tune used for a wide variety of other 16th and 17th century broadside ballads; used as the basis for virtuoso lute playing; that William Shakespeare used for a sophisticated joke; a tune that John Playford published for dancing to; that morris dancers still jig and kick bottoms to; that has become a Christmas favourite; and that pop singers continue to sing. This is the second of three articles, looking at the song’s mythology, its true history, and video examples of its musical transformations.

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Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 1 of 3: Mythology

The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune

101_JanePALMERGreensleeves, composed anonymously in 1580, is a song which has been a magnet for fanciful claims. This article examines the claims that Henry VIII wrote it for Anne Boleyn; that Lady Greensleeves was a loose woman or a prostitute; and that the song has Irish origins. This is the first of three articles, looking at the song’s mythology; its true history; and video examples of its musical transformations.

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