Wren King Songs

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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:
1) Cutty Wren song which begins “Where are we going? says Milder to Melder...”
2) Hunt the Wren, Manx Gaelic versions, which begin “We’ll away to the wood, says Robin to Bobbin...”
3) Wren Song, which begins “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds....”, and
4) Please to See the King, which begins “Joy, health, love and peace....”

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
If you want to put together a playlist or a CD for yourself, you might want to include a recording of the birdsongs of the actual little wrens. You might want to listen to the staccato sound that they make when they are angry (in case you don’t believe me that they are imperious!), but you probably don’t want to add this to your playlist. There is a webpage of recordings of wrens. My favorite one on this page is the scolding call, made in June in Pennsylvania, which I believe is of a Carolina Wren. They sound much louder than this though, if they are close to you.

1. Cutty Wren song
This begins: “‘Where are we going?’ says Milder to Melder.....” The words and music are printed on the Cutty Wren page on Digital Tradition, but these words don't match the way people usually sing it, so I am giving a more widely used set of lyrics.

“Where are we going?” says Milder to Melder.
“We may not tell you,” says vassal to foe.
“Away to the green wood!” says John the Red Nose.
“Away to the green wood!” says John the Red Nose.

“What shall we do there?” says Milder to Melder.
“We may not tell you,” says vassal to foe.
“Hunt the cutty wren!” says John the Red Nose.
“Hunt the cutty wren!” says John the Red Nose.

“How shall we shoot her?” as above.....
“We may not tell you,”
“With bows and with arrows”

“That will not do, then”
“What will do then?”
“With big guns and with cannon!”

“How shall we fetch her home?”
“We may not tell you,”
“On four strong men’s shoulders.”

“That will not do then”
“What will do then?”
“In oxcarts and in wagons!”

“How shall we cut her up?”
“We may not tell you,”
“With forks and with knives”

“That will not do, then”
“What will do then?”
“With hatchets and with cleavers!”

“How shall we cook her?”
“We may not tell you,”
“In pots and in kettles”

“That will not do, then”
“What will do then?”
“In a bloody great brass cauldron!”

“Who’ll get the spare ribs?”
“We may not tell you”
“We’ll give em’ all to the poor!”

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)
The first of these begins “We’ll away to the wood, says Robin to Bobbin” These versions have much the same structure as the previous set, but many have lyrics in Manx.

A. This version has the words and musical notation labeled Manx Air.

We’ll away to the wood, says Robin to Bobbin;
We’ll away to the wood, says Richard to Robin
We’ll away to the wood, says Jack of the Land
We’ll away to the wood, says everyone.

This continues with the rest of the words on the website.

B. Hunt the Wren (Version with both Manx and English words)
This version starts out the same way as the previous, with “We’ll away to the wood, says Robin to Bobbin...” The complete set of words is given without music on Manx Ballads, 1896 where it is called Helg Yn Dreain. Words in both Manx and English and music are published by Peter Kennedy as #78, with additional notes (rather mixed up) on pp. 196-198. The song is sung, or rather, chanted by Joe and Winfred Woods on the MidWinter CD. It starts out (following the unstated question) “In yonder green bush, says Robin to Bobbin.”

C. Hunting the Wren (version from Devonshire)
This has the first line: “I’ve shot a wren, says Robbin to Bobbin...” and it has the chorus “Hoist! Hoist!” as if the wren were extremely heavy. This information is from another Manx notebook page.

“I’ve shot a wren,” says Robbin to Bobbin
“Hoist! hoist!” says Richard to Robin
“Hoist! hoist!” says John all alone.
“Hoist! hoist!” says everyone.

“I’ll take a leg,” says Robbin to Bobbin
“Hoist! hoist!” says Richard to Robin
“Hoist! hoist!” says John all alone.
“Hoist! hoist!” says everyone.

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
This version is typically Irish and has the first line: “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds.....” The first verse of this song is given in the Golden Bough, Volume 8, page 320, where it was recorded by 1876. The words and music are given on the Wren Song page on Digital Tradition, however in many recordings the song is not actually sung but chanted.

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze;
Although he is little, his honor is great.
Jump up, me lads and give him a treat.

As I was gone to Killenaule
I met a wren upon the wall
Up with me wattle and knocked him down.
And brought him into Carrick town

Droolin, droolin, where’s your nest?
’Tis in the bush that I love best;
It’s in the bush, the holly tree,
Where all the boys do follow me.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wren.

We followed the wren three mile or more,
Three mile or more, three mile or more.
We followed the wren three mile or more,
At six o’clock in the morning.

I have a little box under me arm,
Under me arm, under me arm,
I have a little box under me arm;
A penny or tuppence will do it no harm.

Missus Clancy’s a very good woman,
A very good woman, a very good woman,
Missus Clancy’s a very good woman
She gave us a penny to bury the wren.

Notes on the language:
Droolin is the Gaelic word for a wren.
Missus Clancy must be the name of the mother of the Clancy Brothers. They were the first to record this song, so they sang it with the name of their own mother. A lot of people still sing it that way. You might want to substitute the name of your own mother or of someone who gave you something at the last house you visited.

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 two or three shillings would do it no wrong,
Sing holly, sing ivy--sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.

And if you draw it of the best,
I hope in heaven your soul will rest;
But if you draw it of the small,
It won’t agree with these wren boys at all.

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 King
This has the first line: “Joy, health, love and peace...” or “Good health, love and peace....” The words and music for Please to See the King are on Digital Tradition. According to this site it was remembered by “two old ladies in Pembrokeshire.” The words only for “The Wren” or “Be all here” can be found at the www.paganlibrary.com website.

Joy, health, love and peace
Be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing
Concerning our king.

Our king is well dressed
In silks of the best
In ribbons so rare
No king can compare.

We have traveled many miles
Over hedges and stiles
In search of our king
Unto you [him] we bring.

We have powder and shot
To conquer the lot
We have cannon and ball
To conquer them all.

Old Christmas is past
Twelfth tide is the last
And we bid you adieu
Great joy to the new.

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