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The Holy Well

[ Roud 1697 ; Ballad Index L690 ; Bodleian Roud 1697 ; GlosTrad Roud 1697 ; DT BITWITH2 ; Mudcat 16164 ; trad.]

Ewan MacColl sang The Holy Well in 1957 on the Riverside anthology Great British Ballads Not Included in the Child Collection. Kenneth F. Goldstein commented in the album’s booklet:

Various scholars consider The Holy Well to be but an interesting version of The Bitter Withy ballad. Gerould, for example, believed that “… though it has a different ending, [it] should not be listed as a separate ballad or carol.” Its status as a distinct ballad or as merely a version of another ballad should not be determined solely by the similarities or differences between the two ballads in question. What is far more important in such a decision is the importance to the full ballad tale of the elements which differ. If we consider the introductory stanzas (which are almost identical in the two ballads) to be the major narrative element, then The Holy Well and The Bitter Withy are indeed versions of a single ballad theme. This is not the case, however, for the dramatic centre of the ballad is in each case determined by young Jesus’ response to his frustrating rejection by the rich young lords. In The Bitter Withy, he answers vindictively by causing the children to be drowned and is punished by his mother for his act. In The Holy Well, it is Mary who suggests that the young lords be drowned, and it is Jesus’ benevolence which saves them from such a fate.

It is possible that the malevolence displayed by Jesus in The Bitter Withy did not sit well with many of his followers, and that The Holy Well was a rationalised retelling of the apocryphal legend. The dramatic emphasis has been so changed, however, as to the result in the creation of a new ballad tale. There is no doubt that The Bitter Withy is the superior ballad, though The Holy Well has considerable merit in its own right even without the greater dramatic denouement of the former ballad.

The earliest printed text of this ballad appeared in William Sandy’s Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, London, 1833. The ballad was obviously known at an earlier date, however, for an 18th century broadside version is included in W.H. Husk’s Songs of the Nativity, London 1868.

The version sung by MacColl was collated from the closely related versions of Sydney Veale of Camborne, Cornwall (collected in 1913 by Cecil Sharp) and J. Hancocks of Monnington, Hereford (collected in 1908 by Ralph Vaughan Williams); both versions were probably learned from the same printed source.

Wiggy Smith sang The High-Low Well, “an old Travellers’ Christmas Carol”, in his caravan at Elmstone Hardwicke, Gloucestershire, on 13 April 1995. This recording by Gwilym Davies and Paul Burgess was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology My Father’s the King of the Gypsies (The Voice of the People Volume 11). and in 2000 on his Musical Traditions anthology Band of Gold.

Folk South West sang The Holy Well as part of their Fanfare for the South West Suite on their 2003 CD Fanfare for the South West

Coope Boyes & Simpson, Fi Fraser, Jo Freya, and Georgina Boyes sang The Holy Well in 2006 on their No Masters CD Voices at the Door.


Ewan MacColl sings The Holy Well

As it fell out one May morning,
And on one bright holiday.
Sweet Jesus asked his dear mother,
If he might go to play.

“To play, to play, sweet Jesus shall go,
And to play pray get you gone;
And let me hear of no complaint
Tonight when you come home.”

Sweet Jesus went to yonder town
As far as the Holy Well,
And there he did see as fine children,
As any tongue can tell.

He said, “God bless you every one,
May Christ your portion be;
Little children, shall I play with you,
And you shall play with me?”

But they did jointly answer, “No,
For we’re lords’ and ladies’ sons;
And you are but a mean mother’s child
Born in an ox’s stall.”

Sweet Jesus turned himself around,
And neither did laugh nor smile,
But the tears came trickling from his eyes
Like water from the sky.

Sweet Jesus turned himself around,
To his mother’s home went he,
he says, “I have been down in yonder town
As far as you can see.

I have been down in yonder town
As far as the Holy Well,
And there did see as fine children
As any tongue can tell.

“I bid God bless them every one,
And Christ their portion be;
I asked them should I play with them,
And they shall play with me.

“They quickly turned and answered, ‘No,
We’re lords and ladies all;
And you are but mild Mary’s child
Born in an ox’s stall.’ ”

“Well, if you are mild Mary’s child
Born in an ox’s stall,
You’re God the King all over them
You can reign above them all.

“Go down, go down to yonder town
As far as the Holy Well,
And take away those sinful souls
And dip them deep in Hell.”

“No, no,” sweet Jesus smiled and said,
“No, no, that cannot be;
There are too many sinful souls
Crying out for help of me.”

Then up and spoke the angel Gabriel,
Upon a good set steven*,
“Although you’re but a maiden’s child,
You are the King of heaven.”

* With a sure set voice

Wiggy Smith sings The High-Low Well

For as we hollered out, as we fell out,
As we hollered out so wide
Sweet Jesus he turned-ed hisself short round
Neither to laugh nor to smile
And the water did fall from sweet Jesus’s eyes
Like the water from the sky.

“Dear mother, I have been to a merry little town
As far as the high-low well
And there I did saw some the findest children in
That ever any tongue could tell.

“I axed them children could I play ’long with them
And they say ‘Yes, quite well.’
So we were nothing else but a mild Mary’s child
Born down in an ox-filled stall.

“If we were nothing else but a mild Mary’s child,
Born down in an ox-filled stall
Then you shall be the king and the crown of heaven
And the ruler above we all.”