The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune
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.
The 7 minute video on the right, Greensleeves Myths & History (click picture to play – opens in new window) is a quick dash through the chief points in the first article countering the Greensleeves myths, with a performance of the song on voice and lute and a summary of the chief points in this second article giving the true history. Click to play – opens in new window.
With thanks to Norman Wheatley, who recorded the interview for the February 2016 edition of the online folk and traditional music programme, GentleFolk2.
Greensleeves’ origins: the passamezzo antico and romanesca
Centuries before Greensleeves, there was the pes (foot), ground or ground bass, a short, simple, repeated pattern of notes which run throughout a piece of music, a secure bed upon which the melody lies. The earliest surviving example of a pes or ground is integral to the Middle English song, Sumer is icumen in (Summer has come in), from the Harley 978 manuscript of c. 1250. Here it is, sung by The Night Watch, with the audience singing the ground.
We can hear a similar idea in French vocal motets of the 13th century. A motet is a polyphonic song, usually with three voices, each voice singing not only a different melody, but different words. This is, in effect, three songs being sung at the same time, one of which is always a short repeated religious phrase in Latin, sung slowly. So, for example, in the anonymous Je Langui / Domino / Pucelete, one voice sings a love song, another sings a different love song, and a third slowly sings a musical phrase on the word “Domino” throughout, the equivalent of the ground bass.
By the late 15th century, plucked instruments such as the lute were just beginning to develop a new technique to add to their repertoire of playing styles, chordal playing, leading the way for grounds to be chordal rather than the single notes of the mediaeval period. One of the chordal grounds that developed was the passamezzo antico, meaning old passamezzo (there was also the passamezzo moderno), which began in Italy in the early 16th century before it spread through Europe. It’s a little like the blues today in that you have a basic, unchanging chord sequence and, on top of that, a melody is added. The passamezzo antico worked to this principle, using chords:
I – VII – I – V
I – VII – I V – I
In the key of say, A minor (the passamezzo antico was always minor), this would be:
Am – G – Am – E
Am – G – Am E – Am
There was a later version of the passamezzo antico which replaced the first chord of the second line, Am in the example above, with chord III, which would be C in the example above. The passamezzo antico also had a slight variant, the romanesca, the only difference being that the romanesca started on chord III, so it appears to begin in the major and finish in the minor (to use modern music terminology), as follows:
III – VII – I – V
III – VII – I V – I
C – G – Am – E
C – G – Am E – Am
All of which leads to Greensleeves because, as we will soon see, these ground basses are the foundation of the song. It would take some decades, though, for the Italian passamezzo antico to arrive at the English Greensleeves.
In Pierre Attaingnant’s book of lute tablature, Dixhuit basses dances, Paris, 1530, there is a Gaillard which is clearly a very close variant of the passamezzo antico, showing that the idea had by then travelled from Italy to France. Royal Appendix 58 (British Library Additional MS 5665) is a musical commonplace book in use in the late Henrican/mid-Tudor period, containing partsong, possibly the earliest English virginal music, and lute music which probably dates from the 1550s. In it (at f.54v) is a very short untitled piece, clearly based on the passamezzo antico, showing its further spread across Europe and its arrival in England. (This piece is a version of the anonymous Queene Mariees Dump, which would later appear extended in the William Ballet lute book, c. 1590 and c. 1610, and in the Thomas Dallis lute book, c. 1583–85.) It would still be another few years before grounds became foundational to English renaissance music composition, and it began with a royal appointment.
In 1577, John Johnson, Mathias Mason and Thomas Cardell were appointed as “Her Majestys Musitians for the three lutes”, joining Queen Elizabeth’s court just as the lute was coming into its own in England. It was the appointment of John Johnson that marked the most significant turning point. Johnson developed a compositional style based largely on Italian grounds and, where the court led, the nation followed. Surviving lute music sources of the 1570s become more numerous and of consistently higher quality than in previous years, both in their standard of composition and in scribal competence, indicating that lute playing was more widespread and that the general standard of playing was rising. It appears that the 16th century until then had been spent absorbing continental playing and compositional techniques. By 1580, a new English style was ready to flower, and John Johnson led the first generation of English lute composers, their style typified by their use of the ground bass.
The birth of Greensleeves I: lute manuscripts
So now we’re ready for Greensleeves. Structurally, its chord sequence is a combination of the earlier and later versions of the passamezzo antico for the verse and the romanesco for the chorus:
Greensleeves verse, passamezzo antico
I III – VII – I – V
I III – VII – I V – I
Greensleeves chorus, romanesca
III – VII – I – V
III – VII – I V – I
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly which written account of the tune was first. The versions range from basic solo lute accounts of the chordal structure and melody to lute duets with lute two playing the ground bass while lute one plays great flights of divisions, the renaissance and then baroque virtuoso technique of dividing the tune into many more shorter and additional notes, weaving around the melody.
In roughly chronological order, we can see the life of the tune for instrumentalists stretching from near the time of its first publication in 1580 to the early 18th century:
- Green Sleeues, an unattributed lute duet in the handwritten lute manuscript Dd.3.18, c. 1585-1600;
- two parts of an anonymous lute duet titled the the terble to grien sliuis (sic) and the ground to grien sluis respectively in the so-called Folger ‘Dowland’ MS, c. 1590;
- greene sleues in MS 408/2, c. 1592–1603, a basic solo lute version in an English amateur lute anthology, now in Trinity College, Dublin;
- Green Sleeues in Matthew Holmes’ hand-written cittern book, Dd.4.23, c. 1595, a basic solo cittern piece in an English manuscript now in Cambridge University Library;
- a short treble part with a missing ground (perhaps being so well-known it was not written), greeneslueus, in the handwritten Richard Mynshall lute book, 1597–1600;
- Greene sleves Is al mij Joije in the Dutch lute book, Het Luitboek van Thysius, c. 1595–1620, now in Bibliot heca Thysiana, Leiden, South Holland Province;
- GRiensliefs in Joachim van den Hove’s printed lute book of 1601, Florida, published in Utrecht, Holland, with some short but lovely divisions;
- Francis Cutting’s Greenesleeues by maister Cuttinge for lute in BL Add MS 31392, c. 1605, with the most beautiful unexpected twists and turns;
- variations on the tune for cittern in John Playford’s publication, New Lessons for the Citharen, London, 1652;
- Green sleeves … by mr beck for baroque lute (a different lute to that in the renaissance) in the Balcarres lute book of Fife, Scotland, c. 1690–1700; which is almost a direct intabulation of the divisions by …
- John Playford for violin in his The Division Violin, London, 1684;
- Greensleeves to a Ground in the first collection of The Division Flute by John Walsh, London, 1706.
The birth of Greensleeves II: broadside ballads
One favourite practice among lutenists and other renaissance and baroque musicians was to take a well-known broadside ballad tune and overlay its melody with increasingly complex divisions and variations, so Greensleeves’ appearance in lute (and other) books is testament to the tune’s esteem among musicians from the late 16th and through the 17th century. Broadside ballads were sheets of music, sold in the street by ballad-mongers bringing attention to their wares by singing the songs they sold. The broadside was the vehicle which led to Greensleeves’ phenomenal popularity among singers and musicians.
It was first published as a broadside registered at the London Stationer’s Company in 1580: on 3rd September, Richard Jones was licensed to print A New Northern Dittye of ye Lady Greene Sleeves. None of the original issue from 1580 has survived. However, the same Richard Jones printed a book in 1584, A Handful of Pleasant Delights, in which the song was reprinted as A new Courtly Sonet of the Lady Green sleeues. To the new tune of Greensleeues. These are the words with which we are all familiar, starting in the first verse with “Alas, my love, ye do me wrong”, with a chorus that begins, “Greensleeves was all my joy”. I have given a fuller account of the lyric in part one.
Before it was published, the song had clearly already gained some popularity, as another song to its tune was published on the very same day, with a license granted to Edward White to print A ballad, being the Ladie Greene Sleeves Answere to Donkyn hir frende. Where this sudden recognition came from is not possible to say, but later broadsides may give a clue, as a few made reference to their pre-publication origins: The BEGGARS Delight; as it was SUNG at the THEATRE-ROYAL (date unknown); An Excellent New Play-House Song, Call’d, The Bonny Milk-Maid. To an Excellent New Tune much in Request. (1683–1703); Coy Celia’s Cruelty; OR, The Languishing Lovers Lamentation: BEING The last New Play-Song sung at the Theatre-Royal, in a New Play called Amphitrion. To an excellent New Play-House Tune. (1690). It may be, then, that Greensleeves quickly became popular because its origin was in the theatre. It is just as possible, however, that Greensleeves was used in the theatre because it was already popular by another means.
Whatever the source of the popularity of Greensleeves prior to printing, its publication magnified it greatly. On 15th September, only 12 days after the first two prints, Henry Carr was licensed to publish Greene Sleues moralised and, 3 days after that, on 18th September, Edward White returned with Greene Sleues and Countenaunce in Countenaunce is Greene Sleues (yes, it really was called that). It was common practice on broadside ballads to take an already-known melody and compose a new set of words, sometimes on the theme of the original ballad in the form of a sequel or a riposte, more often on an unrelated subject, using the metre of the tune as the basis for the new song, and Greensleeves’ popularity continued in this fashion. October brought The Lord of Lorne and the False Steward set to Greensleeves; December saw A merry newe Northen songe of Greenesleves begynninge the boniest lasse in all the land; February 1581 heralded A Reprehension againste Greene Sleves by William Elderton; May announced A new Ballad … Treason … against the young King of Scots [prevented by] one Andrewe Browne … the Kings Chamberlaine to the tune of Milfield, or els … Greensleeues; and in August, Greene Sleeves is worne awaie, Yellowe Sleeves Comme to decaie, Blacke Sleeves I hold in despite, But White Sleeves is my delighte. All this within 12 months of the original ballad. And it didn’t end there. Remarkably, songs to Greensleeves continued to be regularly printed on broadsides for the rest of the 16th century and right up to the end of the 17th century.
Once a new song to an older tune had become established, the tune could take on the title of the new song; thus the Greensleeves melody was also known on broadsides as The Lord of Lorne; or the (bonny) Black-Smith; or Which no body can deny; or In Rome there is a most fearful Rout. The subjects of the ballads included (and this is not an exhaustive list): executions at Tyburn; making fun of Catholics and Catholicism; Catholic plots; lampooning King Charles II; a wish to return to the good old days; clever word-play on the word ‘nothing’; the praiseworthy job of blacksmiths; worshippers being scared when a cow entered their church; the range of goods imported by merchants; and the Rump Parliament of 1648, including Alexander Brome’s very funny and wonderfully titled broadside, BUMM-FODER OR, VVASTE-PAPER Proper to wipe the Nation’s RUMP with, or your Own.
Samuel Pepys, an enthusiastic collector of broadside ballads, wrote in his diary entry of Monday 23rd April 1660:
“In the evening the first time that we had any sport among the seamen, and indeed there was extraordinary good sport after my Lord had done playing at ninepins. After that W. Howe and I went to play two trebles [viols] in the great cabin below, which my Lord hearing, after supper he called for our instruments, and played a set of Lock’s, two trebles, and a base, and that being done, he fell to singing of a song made upon the Rump, with which he played himself well, to the tune of The Blacksmith.”
The song about the Rump Parliament could be the one cited above, or maybe A NEW-YEARS-GIFT FOR THE RUMP. The tune Pepys gives, The Blacksmith, is a name given to the Greensleeves tune, after a ballad that used its melody.
Greensleeves in Shakespeare
As we’ve seen, upon publication the song and its tune got off to a flying start. So when William Shakespeare cited it in his The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1602, 17 years after the song’s first publication and widespread success, he knew the audience would get his intended jokes. One of them is instructive and culturally extraordinary.
In The Merry Wives, fat knight John Falstaff attempts to seduce both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page for their money: “I will be cheaters to them both, and they shall be exchequers to me” (Act 1, Scene 3). In Act 2, Scene 1, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page have both received wooing letters from Falstaff, identical but for the names at the top. They are about to compare letters and discover the deceit, but Mistress Ford already knows that Falstaff’s charming manner does not fit his true character: “We burn daylight: here, read, read; perceive how I might be knighted. I shall think the worse of fat men, as long as I have an eye to make difference of men’s liking: and yet he would not swear; praised women’s modesty; and gave such orderly and well-behaved reproof to all uncomeliness, that I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words; but they do no more adhere and keep place together than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of Green sleeves.”
For any member of the audience to understand the comic meaning of this line, they would have needed to:
(i) know the Hundredth Psalm off by heart (best in the Geneva Bible rendering, as that was always the version Shakespeare quoted);
(ii) know the tune of Greensleeves and be musically literate enough to immediately recognise the metre and scansion of the words;
(iii) compare the scansion of the Hundredth Psalm and Greensleeves and instantly recognise that one doesn’t fit the other;
(iv) recognise the absurdity of Mistress Ford trying to place them together, get the joke and laugh.
And all this in an instant! I can’t imagine a joke of this kind working with an audience today. Shakespeare expected his audience to immediately understand the reference. That he would even contemplate such a joke speaks volumes about the level of musical education and biblical knowledge in the population at large in his lifetime, but then, this was a time when, to be respected in society, one was expected to be able to skilled in music, to sing, play an instrument and dance, and to be a Christian.
In the last scene of the play (Act 5, Scene 5), Mistresses Ford and Page enter together, ready to enact their revenge on Falstaff. Mistress Ford says, “Sir John! art thou there, my deer? my male deer?”, to which Falstaff replies, “My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves, hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.”
This needs decoding, and it is Falstaff being saucy. A “black scut” could mean a tail or, in this case, pubic hair. “Let the sky rain potatoes” is, given the context, a reference to the reddish sweet potato rather than one of the brown or white varieties now more common in England. The sweet potato entered Europe in general and England in particular before the others more commonly eaten today. John Gerard, in his Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, 1597, described how to cook the sweet potato and stated that it “comforts, strengthens, and nourishes the body”, as well as “procuring bodily lust” – in other words, he thought it was an aphrodisiac. This is why it was so popular among the upper classes of 16th century England – and why Falstaff, seeing Mistress Ford, wanted the sky to rain potatoes. Similarly, Thomas Dawson’s Book of Cookerie, published in 1620 and 1629, included a recipe using sweet potato, which he described as a “tarte to cause courage either in a man or woman” – nudge, nudge, wink, wink. More mysterious is “let it [the sky] thunder to the tune of Greensleeves”. Is this a backward glance to Mistress Ford’s reference to the song, reminding the audience that Mistresses Page and Ford know the truth of Falstaff’s duplicity, a way of letting the audience in on something Falstaff doesn’t know, that he is about to receive his come-uppance? Or does the wooing theme of Greensleeves indicate what Falstaff would like to be doing thunderously? His “kissing-comfits” were sugar plums, perfumed to make the breath sweet; “snow eringoes” were candied roots of sea holly, which were considered an aphrodisiac; and “a tempest of provocation” means sexual excitement.
Within a few lines, Mistress Quickly has appeared with children dressed as a hobgoblin and fairies, who pinch Falstaff and burn him with a “trial-fire” on the basis that the flame will not touch him if he is chaste. Of course, he is pinched, burned and shown publicly to be the knave that he is.
Greensleeves as a social dance
In the English social dance scene of the 17th century, John Playford (1623–1686/7) was a giant. He was a London bookseller, publisher, amateur musician, music and dance enthusiast, minor composer, and member of the Stationers’ Company. His most celebrated publication, a dance manual, was published when public dancing was banned in England. This is not such a paradox as it at first seems.
Trouble had been brewing for some years in the lives of royalists like Playford. In 1644, an Act of Parliament banned Christmas, seen by the Puritans as essentially Catholic in tone, and an occasion for ungodly revelling and wasteful behaviour. In the same year they banned May Day celebrations, with its music, playful dressing-up, may-pole dancing and morris dancing. The Puritans did not ban all dancing, as is often reported. They thought it could be good exercise for the body if the teacher was stern and the sexes were segregated: it was essentially a private matter, not for public entertainment. Because the Puritans distrusted the body, they saw any sensory stimulation as being fraught with the potential for letting in the devil and sensuously sinning against God. Mixed-sex dancing was therefore bound to lead to temptation and inevitable promiscuity, so public, mixed-sex dancing was banned – which, admittedly, was pretty much all of it.
So when John Playford published his first edition of The English Dancing Master in 1651, he did so at a time was the dances it contained, all with their instructions and accompanying tunes, could not be performed publicly. King Charles I had been executed and the Rump Parliament ruled the nation. The title of his publication was a deliberate nose-thumbing to the Puritans, based on a book called The French Dancing Master as, in the baroque period, the French style was a la mode for the fashionable, and in France people could still dance publicly to their heart’s content. It is as if, in his title, Playford was addressing the Puritans: ‘You tell us we can’t dance? You just watch us. We’ll do what the French do.’
The first edition of The English Dancing Master quickly sold out, so Playford published a second edition with nine additional dances the next year. From the second edition, the word English was dropped from the title, thereafter just called The Dancing Master. This trend of multiple editions continued for three volumes until the last print in 1728, 75 years after the first, making his series of dance manuals a highly significant cultural phenomenon. Not only did The Dancing Master outlive the Rump Parliament and the rule of the Puritans, being published well past the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it also outlived him and even his son, Henry, who continued the work until near his own death, with the work then continued by John Young from 1706.
John and Henry Playford are important for our story because The Dancing Master included a version of the tune Greensleeves accompanying two social dances. Green-Sleeves and Pudding-Pies appeared in volume 1 from the 7th edition in 1686 to the 16th edition in 1716; followed by Green Sleeves and Yellow Lace, same tune, different dance, published from volume 1, 17th edition in 1721 to the 18th edition in 1728. (You can see Green Sleeves and Yellow Lace danced in part three.)
Greensleeves as a traditional tune and morris dance
So from social dance to display dance. In 1907, folk song and dance collector Cecil Sharp was still collecting traditional versions of the Greensleeves tune in Gloucestershire, 327 years after its first publication in 1580. Each Gloucestershire version is different to the others in its timing, rhythm and notes, but all are recognisably Greensleeves. The version played by William Hathaway, Sharp noted, was a “Jig danced over bacca pipes”. Peter Kennedy, collecting in the same county in 1952, notated a version of this Bacca Pipes jig from fiddler Stephen Baldwin, and it is still performed today in the English morris tradition. Two or more dancers each step over two long-stemmed tobacco pipes, crossed on the ground, the skill being in dancing around, between and over them without touching or disturbing them. It’s a joy to watch (and you can in part three).
In 1911, Cecil Sharp was collecting in Dolphinholme, Wyresdale, near Lancaster. It was there that he saw and notated another Greensleeves dance, performed by three men, James Winder leading with Septimus Brindle and Bartle Doddin. James Winder was a member of the Winder family of Wyresdale, who were the lynchpin for music in the village, forming the mainstay of the village band from the late 18th century until World War I. A manuscript by John Winder (not related), Dancing Master, 1789, contains this morris tune under the name, Greensleaves or Kick my A**e (sic). When you see the dance you’ll understand why (also included in the videos in part three.) Tom Pearcy, related by marriage to the (first) Winder family, commented that the dance was “a bit on the rough side and was more often done at weddings and parties than at dances.”
Greensleeves in religious, classical and pop music
And the story continues.
English poet and lay theologian, William Chatterton Dix, wrote many hymns over the course of his life. His best known began as a poem, The Manger Throne, written in 1865. In 1871 it appeared in Christmas Carols New and Old, set by John Stainer to Greensleeves and now widely known by its first line, What Child Is This, still widely sung at Christmas.
As well as being a classical composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams was, like Cecil Sharp, an avid collector of traditional English song. In 1929, the Royal College of Music saw its first performance of his new opera, Sir John in Love, based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, with additional material from other Shakespeare plays, sources contemporaneous to Shakespeare, and with 15 minutes of music adapted and arranged from English folk song. The third act included a piece which has now become more famous than the opera: The Fantasia on Greensleeves, which also incorporates the melody of another traditional English song, Lovely Joan, which RVW collected himself in Suffolk. The Fantasia on Greensleeves often played by radio stations and in concert halls today isn’t lifted straight from the opera, though, it is an arrangement by Ralph Greaves, overseen by Vaughan Williams himself.
The song and the tune have proven to be so versatile that they are now well into their fifth century. In the final part, you can view and hear the passamezzo antico and romanesca; Greensleeves for solo lute (including Francis Cutting’s delightful variations) and lute duet; the dance Green Sleeves and Yellow Lace from The Dancing Master; the morris Bacca Pipes jig and Greensleaves or Kick my A**e; What Child Is This; and Ralph Greaves’ arrangement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Greensleeves.
Plus Greensleeves as a Snickers commercial; as folk; pop; punk; black metal; disco; ballet; jazz; blues; country; flamenco; trombone trio; dance; trance; dub step; as the theme for Lassie; played by Homer Simpson; and of course the melody as your favourite ice cream van tune.
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English Broadside Ballad Archive, University of California, Santa Barbara. To go to the site, click here.
Harbster, Jennifer. ‘A Sweet Potato History’, Library of Congress website. 24 November 2010. To go the site, click here.
Hornby, Andy. The Winders of Wyresdale. To go the site, click here.
Menteith, Charles and Burgess, Paul. The Coleford Jig. Gloucester: self-published. 2004.
Perkins, Leeman L. Music in the Age of the Renaissance, New York & London: W. W. Norton and Company. 1999.
Simpson, Claude M. The British Broadside Ballad and its Music, New Brunswick & New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 1966.
Spring, Matthew. The Lute in Britain – a history of the instrument and its music, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2001.
Thomas, Helen. Dance, Modernity and Culture: Explorations in the Sociology of Dance. London: Routledge. 1995
Ward, John M. ‘The Lute Books of Trinity College, Dublin’, The Lute Society Journal, Volume X, The Lute Society. 1968.