The story behind 'greensleeves'

Michael Church

Henry VIII's feelings for music were infinitely less complex than his feelings for the opposite sex: he played the organ, lute, and virginals - a keyboard instrument with a famously "feminine" tone - and he arranged masses and songs in the French manner of the day. Flattery caused people to attribute to him compositions which were almost certainly not his.

Did Henry write "Greensleeves", as has also been suggested? Again, probably not, but this lovely song has a history which is by no means over, despite five centuries of transmogrifying life.

"Alas my love you did me wrong To cast me out discourteously; For I have loved you oh so longDelighting in your company." As the pitch rises, the words become even more plangent: "Greensleeves was my delight,Greensleeves was my heart of goldGreensleeves was my heart of joyAnd who but my lady Greensleeves?"

The first known reference to this song (in 1580) called it "a new Northern Dittye", and it makes an appearance in The Merry Wives of Windsor where the womanising Falstaff's words and deeds "do no more adhere and keep pace together, than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of Green Sleeves".

Moreover, this tune served many purposes beyond the words we now associate with it: it was used as a party tune during the 17th century Civil War, with the Cavaliers setting political ballads to it. When Samuel Pepys wrote on April 23, 1660 of hearing sailors singing a song called "The Blacksmith", that too was the same tune. Click on "Greensleeves" on the internet, and you will discover the life still pulsing through this melody.

Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has written his own earthy variant on the lyrics - "I sang my song, I told my liesTo lie between your matchless thighs" - while his compatriot Loreena McKennitt has recorded a verbally faithful version. Clicking on the name itself brings up a medieval instrumental group who have adopted it as their own, and who advertise their wares with its graceful rendition on the Celtic harp.

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Michael Church

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