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, 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.

Click on the blue text of any version to open up the YouTube video.

Greensleeves’ origins: the passamezzo antico and romanesca

The Greensleeves verse is structurally a passamezzo antico. Here are lute versions of the passamezzo antico by …

Diego Ortiz, Spain, published in 1553

Adrian le Roy, France, 1568

The Greensleeves chorus is structurally a variant of the passamezzo antico, a romanesca. Here are romanescas by …

Alonso Mudarra, Spain, 1546, for 4 course renaissance guitar

Alonso Mudarra, a romanesca called Guardame las vacas for vihuela, here accompanied by lute

Here are the passamezzo antico and romanesca together, played by an ensemble of lutes with a vihuela

The birth of Greensleeves: lute manuscripts

Greensleeves as 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, played here on vihuela and lute.

Francis Cutting’s Greenesleeues by maister Cuttinge for lute in BL Add MS 31392, c. 1605, with the most beautiful unexpected twists and turns; sandwiched between the more well-known greene sleues in MS 408/2, c. 1592–1603, an English amateur lute anthology now in Trinity College, Dublin.

Greene sleves Is al mij Joije in the Thysius lute book, Holland, c. 1595–1620.

Greensleeves, with the original words and period instruments

A performance on voice and renaissance lute by Ian Pittaway, plus a quick dash through the chief points in the previous two articles on this site about the song, the first countering the Greensleeves myths and the second giving the true history.

The song, with (some of) the words as it first appeared, with a period instrument consort of lute, recorder, harp and viola da gamba.

Greensleeves as social dance: Playford

The social dance, Greensleeves & Yellow Lace, which appeared in the series of dance manuals, The Dancing Master, initiated in 1651 by John Playford. This dance appeared in the published series from 1721 to 1728.

Greensleeves as a morris dance

The morris dance, Bacca Pipes: two or more dancers each dance 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.

From the morris tradition of Wyresdale, near Lancaster, Greensleaves or Kick my A**e. (The dance starts after 20 seconds.) It was described as “a bit on the rough side and was more often done at weddings and parties than at dances.”

Greensleeves in religious and classical music

What Child Is This, originally written by English poet and lay theologian William Chatterton Dix as a poem, The Manger Throne, in 1865, set by John Stainer to Greensleeves in 1871 to become a Christmas favourite.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves, which also includes another traditional English song, Lovely Joan, which RVW collected himself in Suffolk. Arranged by Ralph Greaves, overseen by RVW himself. This is a lovely live version played by a small ensemble of 7 musicians.

Greensleeves as folk and blues

Steve Baughman’s arrangement and variations on Greensleeves on his album, A Drop of the Pure, is fabulous, virtuoso folk guitar playing. Click here to see him play it live to camera.

James Taylor plays Greensleeves bluesily.

Hans Theessink plays Saint James Infirmary Blues incorporating Greensleeves.

Hoyt Axton, adding some words of his own.

Greensleeves goes bluegrass, country and pop

Roger Sprung, bluegrass.

Nashville West, featuring Clarence White, “country rock”.

The great Chet Atkins, country guitar.

Olivia Newton John.

Marianne Faithfull.

Neil Young, live.

Glen Campbell.

Jethro Tull.

The Scorpions, 1960s beat combo.

The Moody Blues, What Child is This.

Greensleeves with headbangers, punks and metal    

Ritchie Blackmore’s rockers, Rainbow.

Slime play a punk instrumental.

Abwhore play a black metal version.

Greensleeves jazz, bossanova & flamenco

The Buddy Rich Big Band.

Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins – just lovely.

The John Coltrane Quartet.

Mauricio Montecinos plays a bossanova and flamenco Greensleeves.

Greensleeves trance and dubstep

Nomansland play trance and reggae.

James Sonke turns it into dubstep.

Greensleeves on TV

Snickers commercial with Henry VIII.

Homer Simpson on trombone.

Lassie The Miracle theme tune.

Greensleeves … errr … uncategorisable    

Trio di trombone, trombone trio.

Sung in Vietnamese with a ballet dancer!

The Lords, pop band, 1966. Inexplicable.

No list would be complete without …

Greensleeves as an ice cream van tune.

8 thoughts on “Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 3 of 3: Music

  • 12th August 2015 at 6:24 pm

    Entertaining post.

  • 13th August 2015 at 2:41 pm

    Great idea for an original post.

  • 13th April 2016 at 8:40 pm

    Excelente artigo!

    • 27th April 2018 at 3:54 pm

      I always wonder what source Vaughan Williams used for his setting. His is the only version I know which stays in dorian, melodically and harmonically (minor chord for V) until the Picardy third resolution at the full cadences. Did he just invent this, do you think, to make it more “English folk song”? As it’s the first version of the tune I ever heard, it sounds right to me – but historically it would seem not. Any thoughts?

  • 27th April 2018 at 11:40 pm

    Hello, Chris. I don’t know Vaughan Williams’ source, but if he took the mode as dorian, he presumed the first note is the dorian root (as it is the finalis) and thereby sharpened the 6th degree compared to all the renaissance or baroque sources (if indeed this was his thinking – I don’t know if it was). In the renaissance and baroque sources, the melody does not do this and does not fit any of the medieval modes straightforwardly, which were all natural notes with the exception of Bb, to avoid tritones. However, by the early to mid 14th century the employment of musica ficta in secular music, the adding of flats or sharps, meant that F#, C#, G#, Bb and Eb were in regular use. Rules of thumb developed, such as the flattening of a B when it comes between 2 As for melodic smoothness (as in Greensleeves, if we start on D, contra Vaughan Williams) and, for the same reason, the sharpening of an F between 2 Gs, a G between 2 As and a C between 2 Ds. This we see in Greensleeves, so it is dorian, but a modified dorian, as was typical by that time. I strongly suspect this sharpened 6th is RVW’s invention, and I don’t know why he did it, unless he thought it was straight medieval ecclesiastical dorian (despite Greensleeves being far from medieval and not ecclesiastical) and was ‘correcting’ the melody as it appears in all 16th and 17th sources I know of. I’m afraid that in early music scholarship and commentary there has been a fair bit of ‘correcting’ sources rather than attempting to understand them better as they were originally intended. For the correct and original melody, see the section ‘The birth of Greensleeves: lute manuscripts’ above.

    All the best.

    • 4th May 2018 at 10:28 am

      Ian – Thanks for your reply, sorry for the delay in acknowledging. I guess the “Dorian’ Greensleeves (with the major 6th. throughout and the use of the minor 7th, in bar 8) was RVW’s invention, then. I don’t think he was bothered ‘about ‘correctness’ in early music terms – he was a modern composer consciously incorporating English folk song into his works. When he and Cecil Sharp began publishing the traditional tunes they had been noting down from country singers, some of the musical community were skeptical that “untrained singers would be able to sing in the Dorian mode when many even professional musicians are uncertain as to what that might be.” The Dorian mode is indeed very common in English folk tunes, so RVW may have had a bee in his bonnet! I would say his setting of our tune was an artistic decision, to give it the Dorian flavour he loved so much (the folk song he pairs it with in his Fantasia is also in Dorian). And why not? Once a tune falls into the hands of the ‘folk musician’, it often undergoes modal change – usually to fit the limitations of an instrument. For many, as for me, his version was the first they heard. It has an undeniable charm. Just another variation, then. Best to you, Chris.

  • 25th September 2020 at 12:09 pm

    Thank you so much for your 3 articles!

    • 25th September 2020 at 8:52 pm

      You’re very welcome, Tancredo.


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