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The Twelve Apostles

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Alternative title: The Lily-White Boys

Performer: Lane, Archer
Place Collected: Winchcombe
Date collected: 1909 (31 Jul)
Collector: Grainger, Percy
Roud Number: 133

This song is known in many forms in South and West England, Canada and the USA but rarely elsewhere.  It comes under many titles, including The Twelve Apostles, The Dilly Song, Children, go where I send thee, I’ll Sing you one-oh, etc and a ribald version was once current in the Royal Air Force. The well-known version Green Grow the Rushes-oh is a version collected in Dorset by the Rev W Miles Barnes and published in 1893 in English County Songs (Broadwood).  Much ink has been spent on the supposed symbolism of the words, but there are as many versions of the words as there are collected versions and it appears that a good deal of corruption and mishearing has gone on in the oral tradition, thus making it impossible to talk about an ‘original’ set of words.  The versions collected in Gloucestershire are no more incomprehensible than most other versions. Mr Johnson learnt the song from the singing of children at Christmas time.  Similar carols have been recovered in Breton, German, Greek, Flemish, Hebrew and medieval Latin (‘Unus est Deus’)’.  Perhaps the most convincing theory of the song is that it was a mnemonic for the kabbalistic doctrine of the ten stages between heaven and earth, with the twelve verses of the many versions representing a Christian overlay.

Others versions went:

I’ll sing you four-oh.
What can be your four-oh
Four, four Gospel preachers
Three thimbles to me bow
Two, two lily-white boys
With the darling gree-on
When the one is left alone
Never more to be so

(Arthur Nightingale of Didbrook, learnt in Lincolnshire – James Madison Carpenter collection)

I’ll sing the twelve O’s
What means the twelve O’s?
Twelve’s the twelve apostles, O
Eleven’s the eleven evangelists, O
Ten’s the ten commandments, O
Nine’s the gable rangers, O
Eight’s the bright walkers, O
Seven’s the seven stars in the sky, O
Six is the provokers, O
Five’s the ferryman in the bowl,, O
Four the gospel makers, O
Three’s the rare three, O
Two is the lily-white babes, O
That’s clothed all in green, O
And when the one is left alone, O
No more it can be said, O.

(Mr Earnest E Sutton of Condicote sent this to James Madison Carpenter)

Clive Carey also collected a version (no tune) from John Hitchman in Bledington.

Notes by Gwilym Davies and Jon Lighter