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> The Watersons > Songs > Joy, Health, Love and Peace

The Wren / The King / Joy, Health, Love and Peace

[ Roud 19109 ; Ballad Index FO059 ; trad.]

“The king was the wren. The wren was the king of the birds. In ancient religions the king was sacrificed every seven years for the fertility and good of the tribe. In some places (Ireland) the queen was royal and married new consorts to be sacrificed. The consort was treated well for seven years (or one year) and then sacrificed by the new consort. A wren was killed and dressed up in ribbons, etc. and carried around the village. This is from Pembrokeshire in South Wales, commemorating the wren-killing on St Stephen's Day, December 26. “Old Christmas”, still celebrated rather than December 25, is Twelfth Night.”
Digital Tradition

Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick recorded The Wren in 1969 for their duo album Prince Heathen.

Steeleye Span with Martin Carthy sang it as The King on Steeleye's second album Please to See the King. The record's sleeve notes said:

The wren traditionally symbolised winter and the robin summer. On [St Stephen's Day] in Pembrokeshire, where the song was collected, a wren was hunted and killed to symbolise the death of winter and then placed in a garlanded box and taken from door to door. At each house this song was sung ant the occupants asked to pay to see the dead wren with the words “Please to see the King.”

A soundcheck rehearsal of The King from 1982 in Adelaide was released in 1999 on the CD A Rare Collection 1972-1996 and with overdubbed applause in 1983 on the Australian-only LP On Tour. A live recording from the Maddy Prior, Family & Friends Christmas tour of 1999 was released on the CD Ballads and Candles. Another Steeleye Span performance was recorded live in Salisbury on December 16, 2002 and can be found on The Official Bootleg.

The Watersons recorded this song as Joy, Health, Love and Peace and with very minor differences in the verses for their 1977 LP Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy. A.L. Lloyd commented in the album's sleeve notes:

A wren-boys carol, sung by groups of boys and young men, masked and disguised, who on St Stephen's Day (December 26) went from door to door carrying a holly bush on which was a dead wren, “the king of the birds”, or something to represent it. This rare song came to the Watersons from Andy Nisbet, who got it from “two old ladies in Pembrokeshire.”

A live recording from the Iron Horse, Northampton, USA of unknown date was released in 2004 as The King's Song on the Watersons' 4 CD anthology Mighty River of Song.

All mentioned studio recordings from Martin Carthy, Steeleye Span and the Watersons are joined together on CD 2 of the 4 CD Martin Carthy anthology The Carthy Chronicles too.

Magpie Lane sang The King on their 1995 CD Wassail! A Country Christmas and Andy Turner sang it as part the December 24, 2012 entry of his blog A Folk Song a Week.

Jon Boden sang The King as the December 26, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Kate Rusby sang The Wren on her 2011 Christmas album, While Mortals Sleep.

A Winter Union recorded The King as their 2017 charity single The King, available from Bandcamp

Related songs are Hunting the Wren on Steeleye Span's album Live at Last, and Martin Carthy and June Tabor's Hunting the Cutty Wren on the Mrs Ackroyd Band's album Oranges and Lemmings.

Lyrics

Martin Carthy: The Wren /
Steeleye Span: The King
The Watersons: Joy, Health, Love and Peace

Joy, health, love, and peace be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing concerning our king

Joy, health, love, and peace be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing concerning our king

Our king is well dressed in the silks of the best
In ribbons so rare, no king can compare

Our king is well dressed in the silks of the best
With the ribbons so rare, no king can compare

We have travelled many miles over hedges and stiles
In search of our king, unto you we bring

We have travelled many miles over hedges and stiles
In search of our king, unto you we bring

We have powder and shot to conquer the lot
We have cannon and ball to conquer them all

We have powder and shot for to conquer the lot
We have cannon and ball to conquer them all

Old Christmas is past, Twelfth Night is the last,
And we bid you adieu, great joy to the new

Now Christmas is past, Twelfth Night is the last,
And we bid you adieu, great joy to the new

Acknowledgements

Transcribed from the singing of The Watersons by Garry Gillard.