> June Tabor > Songs > Judas (Was a Red-Headed Man)

Judas (Was a Red-Headed Man) / The Bonfire Carol

[probably Ruth Tongue]

Ruth Tongue, as usual for the songs she published, claimed that she collected this song but very probably she wrote it herself. The songbook Ruth Tongue, Somerset Folklorist (ed. Mary B. Rhodes) noted:

Source: HM, BR, West Somerset Hills

Country traditions and hates are tenacious. Red-headed people along the Quantock coast were called “Denes” in memory of Danish invaders in Saxon times; or as with many Celtic races regarded as uncanny and therefore unlucky.

It is a swaling song. Swaling is burning off dry hillsides, heather and brushwood in the spring. There was a custom of making twelve fires of hedge-cuttings, and one far apart from it of green weed and rubbish.

Sung on Good Friday.

Pete Coe sang Judas in 2004 on his CD In Paper Houses. He noted:

John Swift found this song in a magazine contributed and ‘collected’ by Ruth Tongue. There was supposed to be a bonfire custom in Shropshire which suggested that red-haired men were either the Devil or Vikings. It all sounds a bit dubious to me and it may well be one of the better examples of ‘fakelore’.

The Devil's Interval (Lauren McCormick, Emily Portman and Jim Causley) sang The Bonfire Carol in 2006 on their WildGoose CD Blood and Honey. They noted:

After thirty years of pestering, John Swift finally gave in and sang this song down the phone to Pete Coe. Bizarrely John discovered it in a farming magazine whilst waiting in a dentist surgery! Somerset folklorist and song collector Ruth Tongue regularly contributed her findings to that very magazine and apparently John was so attached to the song that he refused to pass it over to anyone, even the Young Tradition! We were fortunate enough to squeeze it out of the delectable Chris Coe. The Bonfire Carol intriguingly interweaves apocryphal themes with English folklore. The Bonfire Council of Lewes in Sussex might be particularly interested in this one.

June Tabor sang Judas (Was a Red-Headed Man) in 2011 on her second album with the Oysterband, Ragged Kingdom. The album's sleeve notes state that it is a

Spring carol from Somerset collected by Ruth L. Tongue in 1916. It refers to the ancient custom of making twelve fires of hedge cuttings and one apart, of green weeds and rubbish—“That one be for Judas—he burn slow.”

Lyrics

The Devil's Interval sing The Bonfire Carol

There were twelve bonfires burning in a field.
    Judas, Judas
There was one for Peter, there was one for John
Every disciple he had one
    Judas, Judas
There was one for James who died by the sword
But the biggest and the best was for our dear Lord.
    Burn, burn, Judas burn slow
    Bright, bright, bright for our dear Lord's sake.
    Burn slow for Judas
    Judas was a red-headed man.

There was one bonfire standing all alone
    Judas, Judas
Down by the marish and it smoked away
It smoked all night and it smoked all day
    Judas, Judas
'Twas a proper green pother for all to see
But the fire burns bright on our dear Lord’s Tree.
    Burn, burn, Judas burn slow
    Bright, bright, bright for our dear Lord's sake
    Burn slow for Judas
    Judas was a red-headed man.

There were three bonfires burning on a hill
    Judas, Judas
They burned as martyrs for a paltry plot
They burned for those that’ll ne’er be forgot
    Judas, Judas
They burned for treason in the king’s country
As they burned for our Lord high on Calvary.
    Burn, burn, Judas burn slow
    Bright, bright, bright for our dear Lord's sake
    Burn slow for Judas
    Judas was a red-headed man.

There were twelve bonfires burning in a field.
    Judas, Judas
There was one for Peter, there was one for John
Every disciple he had one
    Judas, Judas
There was one for James who died by the sword
But the biggest and the best was for our dear Lord.

June Tabor sings Judas (Was a Red-Headed Man)

There were twelve bonfires burning in a field
    Judas, Judas
There was one for Peter, there was one for John
Every disciple he had one
    Judas, Judas
There was one for James who died by the sword
The biggest and the best was for our dear Lord
    Burn, burn, Judas burn slow
    Bright, bright, bright for our dear Lord's sake.
    Burn slow for Judas
    Judas was a red-headed man

There was one for Judas and it stood all alone
    Judas, Judas
Down by the marish and it smoked away
Smoked all night and it smoked all day
    Judas, Judas
'Twas a proper green smoke for all to see
But the fire burned sweet for our Lord on the Tree
    Burn, burn, Judas burn slow
    Bright, bright, bright for our dear Lord's sake
    Burn slow for Judas
    Judas was a red-headed man

(repeat first verse)