Stupid Question ™
Dec. 5, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: How did “Greensleeves” become a Christmas song?
A: The various versions of the English ballad “Greensleeves” were often bawdy tales of romantic love, once described by Shakespeare as the antithesis of Biblical verse.
Turning the tune into the carol “What Child Is This?” seems like an exercise in early Christian rock.
But it was common for ballad melodies to quickly become separated from their lyrics and adapted to other purposes (including many hymns).
The ballad’s earliest known publication was in 1580, but it was a “new” version no doubt preceded by many others. (Contrary to legend, King Henry VIII did not write the tune.) Despite the variations, the basic motif was always a love song aimed at a well-dressed woman (“Lady Green Sleeves”), often a prostitute.
The 1584 version published today in traditional songbooks is a clean version in which the narrator complains that his would-be lover isn’t impressed by gifts of fancy clothes.
In “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (circa 1597), Shakespeare twice cites the ballad as the epitome of raunch. Hypocrisy is likened to setting “the hundred Psalms to the tune of ‘Green-sleeves.’” And a randy Falstaff proclaims, “….let it thunder to the tune of ‘Green-sleeves’….” while hoping aphrodisiacs rain from the sky.
However, by the mid-1600s the “Greensleeves” melody was being applied to lullabyes and unrelated songs in musical theater.
Illiterate Internet blather reports that Shakespeare set a hanging scene to the tune. This is a confusion with John Gay’s classic 1728 satire “The Beggar’s Opera,” in which new “Greensleeves” lyrics include: “But gold from law can take out the sting/And if rich men like us were to swing/’Twou’d thin the land, such numbers to string/Upon Tyburn tree!”
Its first application to a Christmas carol was “The Old Year Now Is Fled,” which appeared in the popular collection “New Christmas Carols of 1642.”
Folk music, theater and England’s morris-dancing (traditional costumed musical dance) kept the tune alive into the 1800s. Around 1865, a Christian poem called “The Manger Throne” was written by William Dix, a British insurance agent who wrote many verses that were adapted as hymns.
Some sources incorrectly report Dix wrote the verses based on a religious experience following illness-induced depression. That’s actually the story behind his 1858 hymn “As With Gladness Men of Old.”
Music publisher John Stainer pulled out three verses of the poem, set them to the “Greensleeves” melody, and published it as “What Child Is This?” in Stainer and Henry Bramley’s 1872 collection “Christmas Carols New and Old.”
Dix had nothing to do with the music applied to his verse and sometimes didn’t like it. His opinion of the “Greensleeves” melody is not recorded.
Over the centuries the “Greensleeves” melody has varied as much as its lyrics. Stainer’s lilting, trilling arrangement has become the modern standard.
Meanwhile, “Greensleeves” continues to live a secular life. Many Americans know the melody from the song “Home on the Meadow” in the film “How the West Was Won” (1962).