> Dave Swarbrick > Songs > The Cutty Wren
> Steeleye Span > Songs > The Cutty Wren

The Cutty Wren

[ Roud 236 ; Ballad Index DTcutywr , SBoA165 ; Wiltshire 202 ; trad.]

The Ian Campbell Folk Group sang The Cutty Wren in 1962 on their Topic EP Songs of Protest. A.L. Lloyd had a somewhat far-fetched explanation in the sleeve notes:

Some of the most ancient, most enduring and at the same time most mysterious English folk songs are those concerned with the attributes and sacrifice of monstrous animals. At the end of the 14th century, when peasant rebellion was in the air, the old magical song of the gigantically powerful bird (presented by a kind of folklore irony as a tiny wren) took on a tinge of new meaning. For here was the story of a great fowl so hard to seize, so difficult to dismember but so apt for sharing among the poor; and what did that suggest but a symbol of seignorial property?

Royston Wood and Heather Wood sang The Cutty Wren in 1977 on their Transatlantic LP No Relation.

Danny Spooner and Gordon McIntyre sang The Cutty Wren on the 1968 album Soldiers and Sailors (Folksingers of Australia Volume 2). They returned in their notes to A.L. Lloyds above explanation:

Dating from the 14th Century, this song was almost certainly a magical or totem song. In the opinion of A.L. Lloyd it took on a strong revolutionary meaning during the peasants' revolt 1381. In countless legends the wren features as a tyrant and it would seem that, in this song, it became the symbol of baronial property, for which preparation for the seizure and redistribution to the peasants was to be carried out in the greatest secrecy. Hence the symbolism and hidden meaning.

An excellent version of this ancient song has been collected by N. O'Connor from Simon McDonald of Crewick, Victoria, 1963.

Robin Dransfield sang The Cutty Wren in 1984 on his LP Tidewace.

Chumbawamba sang The Cutty Wren in 1988 on their LP English Rebel Songs 1381-1914 and re-recorded it in 2003 for their CD English Rebel Songs 1381-1984.

Steeleye Span sang The Cutty Wren in 1996 on their CD Time. The sleeve notes commented:

The wren is known as the King of the Birds, because there is a fable in which a competition takes place to decide which bird is supreme. It is decided that he that flies highest is the monarch. The wren craftily hitches a ride on the back of the eagle and wins.

Also the wren was sacred to the Druids and the custom of catching and killing wrens at Christmas time would not be incompatible with this history of reverence. It would be protected all year and then ritually slain as a sacrifice at the appropriate time. As with all possible remnants of ancient religions, their meaning becomes obscured and their enactment trivialized, and so this song until recently was attached to the Christmas tradition of wassailing and the demanding of monies.

Compare to this Hunting the Wren on Steeleye Span's album Live at Last!

See also the Digital Tradition study thread Cutty Wren.

Lyrics

Steeleye Span sing The Cutty Wren

“O where are you going?” said Milder to Maulder
“O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes
“We're off to the woods,” said John the Red Nose

“What will you do there?” said Milder to Maulder
“O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes
“We'll hunt the Cutty Wren,” said John the Red Nose

“How will you shoot her?” said Milder to Maulder
“O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes
“With bows and with arrows,” said John the Red Nose

“That will not do then,” said Milder to Maulder
“O what will do then?” said Festle to Foes
“Big guns and big cannons,” said John the Red Nose

“How will you bring her home?” said Milder to Maulder
“O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes
“On four strong men's shoulders,” said John the Red Nose

“That will not do then,” said Milder to Maulder
“O what will do then?” said Festle to Foes
“Big carts and big waggons,” said John the Red Nose

“How will you cut her up?” said Milder to Maulder
“O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes
“With knives and with forks,” said John the Red Nose

“That will not do then,” said Milder to Maulder
“O what will do then?” said Festle to Foes
“Big hatches and cleavers,” said John the Red Nose

“Who'll get the spare ribs?” said Milder to Maulder
“O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes
“We'll give them all to the poor,” said John the Red Nose