The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Sharp's Note on The Ten Commandments

Source: Cecil J. Sharp, One Hundred English Folksongs (London: Oliver Ditson Company, 1916), Notes on the Songs, No. 97, The Ten Commandments, pp. xlii-xlvi.

In this collection, Sharp concludes with several cumulative songs, including "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "The Ten Commandments."

For the carol, see: The Ten Commandments

No. 97. The Ten Commandments

This song is very common in Somerset and over the whole of the West of England. The Rev. S. Baring-Gould has published a version in Songs of the West, and there are two versions in English County Songs. Both of these publications contain notes respecting the origin, distribution, and meaning of this curious song.

It will be seen that the words of many of the verses are corrupt; so corrupt, indeed, that in some cases we can do little more than guess at their original meaning. The variants that I have recovered in Somerset are as follows:

(1) All versions agree in this line, which obviously refers to God Almighty.

(2) "Two of these are lizzie both, clothed all in green, O!" Mr. Baring-Gould suggests that the "lily-white babes" are probably the Gemini, or signs for Spring.

(3) "Thrivers," " Tires," or " Trivers." I t has been suggested that these may be corruptions of "Wisers,"as one printed version gives it, and may refer to the Wise Men from the East.

(4) Always " Gospel Preachers" or "Makers."

(5) "The boys upon the pole," "The thimble over the ball," "The plum boys at the bowl," or "in the brow."

(6) "Broad Waiters," "Charming Waiters," "Go Waiters," "The Minger Waiters." The editors of English County Songs suggest that these may refer to the six water-pots used in the miracle of Cana of Galilee.

(7) Always "Seven stars in the sky"—presumably the constellation of Ursa Major.

(8) "The Gibley Angels," "The Angel Givers," "The Gabriel Angels."

(9) No Somerset variants. Mr. Baring-Gould records a Devon variant, "The Nine Delights," that is, the joys of Mary.

(10) No variants.

(11) "Eleven and eleven is gone to heaven," that is, the twelve Apostles without Judas Iscariot.

(12) No variants.

In Notes and Queries for December 26, 1868, there is a version of the words of this song as "sung by the children at Beckington, Somerset." It begins as follows:

Sing, sing, what shall we sing?
Sing all over one.
One! What is one?
One they do call the righteous Man.
Save poor souls to rest, Amen.
These are the remaining verses:
Two is the Jewry.
Three is the Trinity.
Four is the open door.
Five is the man alive.
Six is the crucifix.
Seven is the bread of leaven.
Eight is the crooked straight.
Nine is the water wine.
Ten is our Lady's hen.
Eleven is the gate of heaven.
Twelve is the ring of bells.

A Hebrew version of the words of "The Ten Commandments" is to be found in the service for the Passover (see Service for the First Nights of Passover according to the custom of the German and Polish Jews, by the Rev. A. P. Mendes). The service for the second night of the Passover concludes with two recitations, both of which are accumulative songs. The second of these, "One only kid," has nothing to do with "The Ten Commandments," but, as it is analogous to the English nursery song, "The Old Woman and her Pig," it is perhaps worth while to quote the last verse:

Then came the Most Holy, blessed be He, and slew the slaughterer, who had slaughtered the ox, which had drunk the water, which had burnt the staff, which had smitten the dog, which had bitten the cat, which had devoured the kid, which my father bought for two zuzim; one only kid, one only kid.
This, of course, is explained esoterically. The "cat," for instance, refers to Babylon; the "dog" to Persia; the "staff" to Greece, and so on (see Mendes).

The other accumulative song, which precedes "One only kid," is a Hebrew rendering of "The Ten Commandments" of western England. It contains thirteen verses:

Who knoweth one? I, saith Israel, know one: One is God, who is over heaven and earth.

Who knoweth two? I, saith Israel, know two: there are two tables of the covenant; but One is our God, who is over heaven and earth.

Who knoweth three? I, saith Israel, know three: there are three patriarchs, the two tables of the covenant; but One is our God, who is over heaven and earth. Etc., etc., etc.

Who knoweth thirteen? I, saith Israel, know thirteen: Thirteen divine attributes, twelve tribes, eleven stars, ten commandments, nine months preceding child-birth, eight days preceding circumcision, seven days in the week, six books of the Mishnah, five books of the Law, Your matrons, three patriarchs, two tables of the covenant; but One is our God, who is over the heavens and the earth.

Whether "One only kid" and "Who knoweth One?" originated with the common people and were afterward taken into the Passover service, or vice versa, is a matter of some doubt. Simrock (Die deutschen Volkslieder, p. 520) says that "Who knoweth One?" was originally a German peasants' drinking-song; that it was changed by the monks into an ecclesiastical song, very similar to the form in which we know it; and that afterward, probably during the latter half of the 16th century, it suffered a further adaptation and found a place in the Passover service of the German Jews. "Ehad Mi Yodea"—to give it its Hebrew title—has, however, since been found in the Avignon ritual as a festal table-song for holy-days in general, so that its inclusion in the Jewish Passover service may have been earlier than Simrock surmised. It appears that to the early manuscript Jewish prayer-books it was customary to append popular stories and ballads. That may have been the case with the two songs in question, in which event it is easy to see how they may gradually have been absorbed into, and have become, an integral part of the service itself. The Rev. A. A. Green, in The revised Hagada, expresses the opinion that both of these accumulative songs are essentially Hebrew nursery rhymes, and he regrets "that they have ever been regarded as anything else." He quotes the first verse of the Scottish "Song of Numbers:"

We will all gae sing, boys.
Where will we begin, boys?
We'll begin the way we should
And we'll begin at ane, boys.

The literature on the subject is a very large one. Those who are interested in the matter should consult the articles "Ehad Mi Yodea" and "Had Gadya" in the Jewish Encyclopedia (volumes v and vi), where many authorities are quoted.

It will be noticed that all the Christian forms of the song stop at the number twelve. It has been suggested that the Hebrew version was purposely extended to thirteen, the unlucky number, in order that the Jew might be able to feel that with him thirteen was a holy and, therefore, lucky number.

Like many accumulative songs, "The Ten Commandments" is a most interesting one to listen to. The best folksingers combine their musical phrases in a different manner in each verse, and in so doing display no little ingenuity. Their aim, no doubt, is to compound the phrases so as to avoid the too frequent recurrence of the full-close. I should have liked to have shown exactly how the singer sang each verse of the song, but this would have entailed printing every one of the twelve verses, and consideration of space forbade this. I have, however, given the last verse in full, and this, I hope, will be some guide to the singer.

A form of this song, "Green grow the rushes, O," is known at Eton, and is printed in English County Songs (p. 158); and Sullivan introduced a version into The Yeomen of the Guard.

Editor's Note:


See also: The Twelve Apostles - Version 2.

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