The Cherry Tree
Words and Music: English Traditional
Source: Cecil J. Sharp, English Folk-Carols (London: Novello & Co., Ltd., 1911), pp. 9-10.
1. Joseph was an old man,
An old man was he;
He married with Mary,
The Queen of Glory.
2. Joseph took Mary
In the orchard wood,
Where there were apples, plumbs, cherries,
As red as any blood.
3. Then bespoke Mary,
So meek and so mild:
Get me some cherries
For my body's bound with child.
4. Joseph he's taken
These words so unkind:
Let them get you cherries, Mary
That did your body bind.
5. Then bespoke Jesus,
All in His mother's womb:
Go to the tree, Mary,
And it shall bow down;
6. The highest bough of the cherry tree
Shall bow down to Mary's knee,
And she shall have cherries
For her young Son and she.
7. Mary god cherries
By on, two and three;
Mary got cherries
For her young Son and she.
Notes from Sharp, pp. 61-2.
Sung by Mrs. Plumb, at Armscote, Worcestershire.
The words are very similar to a set printed by Hone (Ancient Mysteries described 1823, pp. 90-1), from which the last two lines of the fifth stanza, which Mrs. Plumb forgot, have been taken. Except for this interpolation, the words in the text are as Mrs. Plumb sang them.
This carol, of which I have noted eight variants, may be found in all the representative carol collections. The words, too, have always been exceedingly popular with broadside printers.
The legend upon which the story of this carol is based, is a variant of one related in one of the Apocryphal Gospels (Pseudo-Matthew, Chapter xx). Joseph and the Virgin with the Infant Jesus are fleeing to Egypt when Mary, seeing a palm tree, proposes that they shall rest awhile under its shade. Noticing that the tree was heavy with fruit she asks for some. Joseph somewhat testily replies : “I wonder thou sayest this, when thou seest what a height the palm is .........I think more of scarcity of water, which is already failing us in the bottes.”. . Whereupon “the little child Jesus, sitting with a glad countenance in his mother’s lap, saith to the palm, O tree, bend down thy branches, and with thy fruit refresh my mother.” The palm accordingly bowed down, and they gathered its fruit ; whereat, “Jesus said to it, Raise thee, O palm, and be strong, and be a partner with my trees which are in the paradise of my Father. And open from thy roots a spring of water which is hidden in the earth; and let waters flow forth from it to our satisfying. And immediately it arose, and there began to flow forth at its root a most pure fount of waters, very cool, and exceedingly clear (see The Apocryphal Gospels, translated by B. Harris Cowper, pp. 59-60).
The Cherry Tree theme, however, is directly founded upon an incident in the Coventry Miracles (Piece xv). Joseph and Mary are on the road to "Bedlem" to be taxed when the following conversation takes place (see Hone’s Mysteries, pp. 67-8) :—
Maria—A my swete husbond wolde ye telie to me,
What tre is yon, standing vpon yon hylle?
Joseph—For suthe Mary it is clepyd a chery tre
In tyme of yer, ye mvght ffede yow theron yowr fylie.
Maria—Turn a geyn, husbond, & be holde yon tre,
How that it blornyght, now, so swetly.
Joseph—Cum on Mary, that we wern at yon Cyte,
or ellys we may be blamyd, I telle yow lythly,
Maria—Now my spowse, I pray yow to be hold
How the cheryes growyn vpon yon tre;
ffor to have them, of ryght, ffayn I woid,
& it piesyd yow to labor’ so mec’h for me.
Joseph—Yo’ desyr to ffulfylle I schall assay sekyrly :—-
Ow! to plucke yow of these cheries it is a work wylde
ffor the tre is so hy’, it wol not he lyghtly
Y’ for lete hy’ pluk yow cheryes, be gatt yow with childe.
Maria—Now, good lord, I pray the, graunt me this bonn,
to haue of these cheries, & it be yo’ wylle now,
I thank it god, yis tre bowyth to me down,
I may now gader’y a nowe, & etyn my ffyile.
Joseph then humbles himself, the miracle convincing him that he has offended “god i’ trinyte.”
Obviously, this is the source of the popular song. The last line of Joseph’s last speech is almost word for word the same as the corresponding line of Mrs. Roberts’s version.
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