Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”


Above: Paul Desmond and the Modern Jazz Quartet put their spin on “Greensleeves.”

By Joel Francis

The melody for “Greensleeves” dates to 16th century England. It is been rumored that King Henry VIII for his lover Anne Boyeln – the subject of the recent “The Other Boyeln Girl” novel and film. According to historians, however, the best case scenario is that ol’ Hank just stuck his words on an existing melody.

Double entendres were common in the love songs of the Renaissance. At the time, the color “green” was a charged term. It implied the color that a woman’s clothes would turn if she made love outside. Lady Greensleeves, the subject of the song, was said to be a prostitute, or at least a promiscuous woman.

As with the words, no one knows who wrote the melody. It was likely developed by English minstrels and troubadours as they traveled the countryside. The tune was first published in a 1580 broadside entitled “A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves.” Four years later, it turned in A Handful of Pleasant Delights as “A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves.”

Nearly 300 years later, Englishman William Dix penned new lyrics to the familiar, lilting melody. At age 29, Dix was confined to several months of bed-rest after a nasty bout with a near-fatal illness. Manager of maritime insurance company by day, Dix used the opportunity to write several hymns. The new words became “What Child Is This?” and draw on the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke.

It’s hard to believe such a cherished song grew from such bawdy beginnings. Over the last 60 years, it has been performed by everyone from singers Odetta and Olivia Newton-John to rockers Jethro Tull and Jeff Beck. John Coltrane made it a jazz standard and organist Garth Hudson of The Band played it over the closing credits of Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Waltz.”

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