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The curious tale of the child Jesus committing multiple infanticide on a group of upper-class snobs and then receiving nothing more than a hiding for His actions and then cursing the withy tree for being the cane which beat Him has fascinated folk singers for years, although for obvious reasons has never found a place in the church repertoire. It comes into the category of Apocryphal carols and has been collected many times, mainly in the West Midland and often from the gypsy community. However there is no record of it in oral tradition before the 20th Century and so far as is known, it did not appear on any broadside.
Cecil Sharp wrote “The origin of the legend, upon which this curious carol is based, has attracted a great deal of attention from ballad students during the last few years, and has been exhaustively debated in the pages of The Folk-Song Society’s Journal (II, pp. 205, 300-4; IV, pp. 29-47) where six traditional tunes are printed, together with several versions of the text.”
The Bitter Withy has points in common with another folk carol The Holy Well, but the latter does not have the same conclusion. In The Holy Well, for instance, when the children, scorning His lowly birth, refuse to play with Him, Jesus returns home and tells His mother what has happened. Whereupon Mary says:
Sweet Jesus, go down to yonder town,
As far as the Holy Well,
And take away those sinful souls,
And dip them deep in hell.
But Jesus is merciful and says:-
Nay, nay, sweet Jesus said,
Nay, Nay, that may not be,
For there are too many sinful souls
Crying out for the help of me.
It may be therefore that the Holy Well is a later rewrite of The Bitter Withy, showing Jesus in a compassionate rather than a vengeful light. However, noted versions of The Holy Well predate The Bitter Withy, so this theory is speculative.
The Bitter Withy is one of the carols derived from events in the ‘Apochryphal’ carols with certain changes. For example, in the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, the Lord Jesus, going out into the streets to play, follows some boys who, in order to evade Him, hide themselves in a vault and are changed by Him into baby goats. In the Syriac Gospel of the Boyhood Jesus, when five years old, plays at a ford with streams of water, collecting them into a pool. One of His companions took a stick from a willow tree and destroyed the pool; whereupon Jesus said: “Without root shall thy shoot be, and thy fruits shall dry up like a bough of the wood which is broken by the wind, and is no more. And the boy immediately withered away” (Cowper’s Apocryphal Gospels, p. 449). In the same Gospel a boy, who was running, struck Jesus with his shoulder. “Jesus saith unto him: Thou shalt not go thy way. And immediately he fell down and died.” Again, Jesus was playing on the housetop when one of His companions, Zeno, accidentally fell down and was killed. Jesus, accused by the boy’s family of casting the boy down, said to Zeno: “Did I cast thee down?” Whereat Zeno leaped up and said: “No, my Lord.”
Professor Gerould also mentions a sunbeam legend — unaccompanied, however, by the drowning incident — in the Laurentian MS. of Pseudo-Matthew.
Now the main thesis of all these stories is very similar to that of The Bitter Withy; the Infant Christ goes out to play, someone offends Him and in consequence suffers death, or severe punishment, brought about by supernatural means. Just how – and when – a relative of these ancient stories entered English folk balladry is a mystery.
Notes by Gwilym Davies and Jon Lighter