• Proto-Indo-European Religion
• Indo-European Languages
• Proto-Indo-European Goddesses
• Proto-Indo-European Myths
• How Lleu Llaw Gyffes Got His Name
• Proto-Indo-European Rituals
• Festivals, Food and Farming
• Hunting the Wren
• Wren King Songs
• Burying the Wren
NO WRENS NEED BE HARMED FOR THIS. Use a fake one!
Wren King Songs have been referred to in folklore collections as early as 1786. They were used as part of the custom of Hunting the Wren which was very widespread in traditionally Celtic-speaking areas including France, Brittany, Wales, Manx island, Scotland and Ireland. Processions used to be organized throughout December and even until Twelfth Night (January 6th). The custom continues today especially in Ireland on December 26th, when children and adults go visiting the neighbors and ask for gifts of food, money or alcohol (depending on the age of the participants, we hope), in exchange for seeing a captured wren. Many Wren Songs have been notated by folk music collectors, and now they have been recorded by the musicians who remember them.
As a folk custom, Wren King songs have a great many variations and even room
for creativity. The titles are not very dependable, so it’s best to check the
first lines. The main versions are:
All of these songs are traditional but it is sometimes hard to find a copy of the words, so I have included some of them here, so that you can sing the songs.
Actual Wren Song as sung by actual wrens
1. Cutty Wren song
“Where are we going?” says Milder to Melder.
“What shall we do there?” says Milder to Melder.
“How shall we shoot her?” as above.....
“That will not do, then”
“How shall we fetch her home?”
“That will not do then”
“How shall we cut her up?”
“That will not do, then”
“How shall we cook her?”
“That will not do, then”
“Who’ll get the spare ribs?”
The song tells of absurd plans to cut up the little thing with hatchets and cleavers, to cook it in a great brass cauldron or in one of the giant kettles that are used for brewing beer, and then to divide up the body as if the parts were enough food to feed an entire town. This is part of the “exaggeration” that appears in all the versions of Wren King Songs. There are several good recordings: Cutty Wren by Steeleye Span on the Time CD, and Cutty Wren by Royston Wood & Heather Wood on Fairport Companion, Loose Chippings CD, and these can be listened to for free on MySpace. I like the version by Steeleye Span because it sounds like they are going out to hunt something. You can also hear Chumbawamba singing Cutty Wren on the English Rebel Songs CD. It is this version that is said to have been sung at the Peasants’ Rebellion in 1381 according to the Chumbawamba liner notes on the CD. Probably that is based on the names that appear in some of the verses, such as “vassal to foe” and “Jack of the Land” who is identified with Jack Straw, one of the participants in the rebellion. But Jack is a common enough name and this information is not very specific. Certainly Wren Songs were sung as an expression of hostility toward authorities.
2. Hunt the Wren Songs (mostly Manx versions)
A. This version has the words and musical notation labeled Manx Air.
We’ll away to the wood, says Robin to Bobbin;
This continues with the rest of the words on the website.
B. Hunt the Wren (Version with both Manx and English words)
C. Hunting the Wren (version from Devonshire)
“I’ve shot a wren,” says Robbin to Bobbin
“I’ll take a leg,” says Robbin to Bobbin
And then it continues until they have divided the little thing up. This source doesn’t give any more information and there are no recordings that I know of, but it could be sung to the same tune as the previous song.
3. Wren Song
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
As I was gone to Killenaule
Droolin, droolin, where’s your nest?
We followed the wren three mile or more,
I have a little box under me arm,
Missus Clancy’s a very good woman,
Notes on the language:
Two additional verses are quoted in the Golden Bough, Vol. 8, page 320, and localized to Ireland:
My box would speak, if it had but a tongue,
And if you draw it of the best,
There are many good recordings of this song. The Wren Song is sung by the (Langstaff) Revels Children’s Chorus on A Child’s Christmas Revels CD. You can hear them tapping the sticks (normally barrel staves), which some of the more raucous participants used to hunt the wrens, and possibly threaten their neighbors. Here the Children’s Chorus makes it all sound quite lovely. It also appears as the Wran Song by Liam Clancy (rest in peace!), on the Lark in the Morning CD. (Wran spelled with an a is the usual spelling in Irish versions.) There is a video on YouTube of the West Clare Wrenboys playing the Wren King song. If you watch the guy with an accordion, he is wearing one of the straw hats that are typically made for the occasion. There is also music suitable for the procession or for dancing in the evening played by the Chieftains, on the Bells of Dublin CD including the Arrival of the Wren Boys; Dingle Set-Dance; Wren in the Furze; and the Brafferton Village/Walsh’s Hornpipe. I like this entire CD because they sound like they are having fun. And finally there is a nice variation called the Wren Boys’ Song with an additional chorus by Magpie Lane on their Knock At The Knocker, Ring At The Bell CD. You can listen to that on MySpace.
4. Please to See the King or The
Joy, health, love and peace
Our king is well dressed
We have traveled many miles
We have powder and shot
Old Christmas is past
There are excellent recordings of this beautiful song. “Please to see the King” is sung by the (Langstaff) Revels Children’s Chorus on the Christmas Day in the Morning CD. Other recordings are The King by Steeleye Span on the Please to See the King CD, and The King by Loreena McKennitt on the Drive Cold Winter Away CD. You can listen to these on MySpace.
Aside from the longer Manx versions, all of these songs together only take about 5 minutes to sing. This hardly adds up to a CD’s worth of music, but with variant recordings and dance music versions, they do make a cheerful sound in the household in winter.
Singing Wren King Songs is part of the tradition of for the Winter Solstice or the day after Christmas including Hunting the Wren which could be an all-day affair, and it continues with Burying the Wren which was done with accompanying dirges. The explanation for why people would associate hunting wrens with the birth of the Sun at the Winter Solstice can be understood from the Celtic myth of How Lleu Llaw Gyffes Got His Name.
© 2007, last updated 6/17/2012, piereligion.org/wrenkingsongs.html