“Down In Yon Forest” – A song about Christmas, Easter and, probably, the Holy Grail…

It is an undeniable law of the universe that all Christmas sweaters are corny. Something similar may be said about Christmas records: They always end up sappy and saccharine and being an embarrassment to the artists who made them. There is, however, a small handful of exceptions, and for me one of them is the album Christmas by Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, released in 1990. One of the things I like about this record is its idiosyncratic choice of material; of course it features a certain number of Christmas standards like Silent Night or God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, but there’s also plenty of more obscure stuff like the rousing gospel Early on one Christmas Morn which Cockburn learned from a 1929 recording by The Cottontop Mountain Sanctified Singers. The weirdest of them all, though, is Down In Yon Forest about which Cockburn says in the album’s liner notes:

“If there were a contest for the title of the spookiest Christmas carol, this ought to win hands down. Collected earlier in this century by John Jacob Niles, it hails from North Carolina. I believe it to be of great age, though, both because of the melodic style and because of the lyrics, which resonate with the Grail myth, and with the ancient custom of every few years draining the blood out of one’s king onto the soil to ensure its continuing fertility.”

So, here’s Cockburn’s version of the song:

And here are the lyrics to the song:

1. Down in yon forest be a hall,
Sing May, Queen May, sing Mary!
‘Tis coverlided over with purple and pall.
Sing all good men for the new-born Baby!

2. Oh in that hall is a pallet bed,
Sing May, Queen May, sing Mary!
‘Tis stained with blood like cardinal red.
Sing all good men for the new-born Baby!

3. And at that pallet is a stone
Sing May, Queen May, sing Mary!
On which the Virgin did atone
Sing all good men for the new-born Baby!

4. Under that Hall is a gushing flood
Sing May, Queen May, sing Mary!
From Christ’s own side ’tis water and blood.
Sing all good men for the new-born Baby!

5. Beside that bed a shrub tree grows,
Sing May, Queen May, sing Mary!
Since He was born it blooms and blows.
Sing all good men for the new-born Baby!

6. Oh, on that bed a young Squire sleeps,
Sing May, Queen May, sing Mary!
His wounds are sick, and see, he weeps.
Sing all good men for the new-born Baby!

7. Oh hail yon Hall were none can sin,
Sing May, Queen May, sing Mary!
Cause it’s gold outside and silver within,
Sing all good men for the new-born Baby!

Interestingly, a slightly different version of this song was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1906 or 1907 from one Mr. Hall of Castleton in Derbyshire. This version is actually much better known than the American one and has been recorded by a large number of artists, among them English folk-icon Shirley Collins:

The lyrics, in this case, go like this:

1 Down in yon forest there stands a hall
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring
It’s covered all over with purple and pall
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

2 In that hall there stands a bed
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring
It’s covered all over with scarlet so red
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

3 At the bed-side there lies a stone
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring
Which the sweet Virgin Mary knelt upon
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

4 Under that bed there runs a flood
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring
The one half runs water, the other runs blood
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

5 At the bed’s foot there grows a thorn
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring
Which ever blows blossom since he was born
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

6 Over that bed the moon shines bright
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring
Denoting our Saviour was born this night
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

As is quite apparent, the lyrics of the two versions have much in common, most notably the images of the hall with the bed and the flood of water and blood running under it. Oddly though, the bits they have in common are the verses that don’t have anything to do with Christmas at all. This is due to the fact that, in both its variants, Down In Yon Forest is quite obviously based on the so-called Corpus Christi Carol which is first recorded in the Commonplace Book of Richard Hill, a London grocer, written at the beginning of the 16th century:

Lulley, lully, lulley, lully,
The faucon hath born my mak away.

He bare hym up, he bare hym down,
He bare hym into an orchard brown.

In that orchard ther was an hall,
That was hanged with purpill and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bede,
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.

And yn that bede ther lythe a knyght,
His wowndes bledyng day and nyght.

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.

And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston,
“Corpus Christi” wretyn theron.

The exact meaning of this rather cryptic poem has been much debated with interpretations ranging from “It’s about the Holy Grail” to “It’s about Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon”. One thing is clear, though: There isn’t even the slightest connection with Christmas or the birth of Jesus to be found in this carol. On the contrary: With its imagery of bleeding wounds and weeping maids, and, most importantly, with the mention of the “Corpus Christi” in the last line, the poem seems to be about the Passion of the Christ and his violent death on the cross. If this was ever connected to a Christian feast day, it must have been either Good Friday or indeed the Feast of Corpus Christi which had been formally established by the pope in 1264.

It is a mystery to me how anyone could ever have read/heard the Corpus Christi Carol and decided “hey, that would make a great Christmas carol!” But apparently someone did, and with a few twists and tweaks a song about death and mourning become a song about birth and joy. In the version from North Carolina this was simply yet effectively achieved by omitting the last stanza and by including a chorus line about a “new-born baby”. Other than that, the verses of the song are still relatively close to the 16th century text and even mention Christ’s side wound. In the Derbyshire version, too, a chorus has been added but it’s more generic and not directly related to Christmas. However, more alterations have been made to the verses themselves, and the last stanza has been substituted with verses dedicated to the birth of Christ.

So, apart from probably being “the spookiest Christmas carol” in the world, Down In Yon Forest is also a highly interesting example of how texts are/were altered and adapted when they were being handed down through oral transmission. Because the thing is, most of the “medieval” songs and ballad we know today, we only know from versions that were written down only from the 17th century onwards. So in far too many cases we can’t really be sure whether the text we know is a) medieval, b) medieval with later alterations, or c) the invention of, e.g., an 18th century publisher trying to cash in on the public’s interest in ancient balladry. The case of Down In Yon Forest shows just how tricky matters can be in this respect: As it turns out, between c. 1500 and c. 1900 the carol’s meaning was turned around 180 degrees – while still retaining much of its original words and imagery.

All in all, if you intend to go carolling or sing some nice Christmas carols at home among your loved ones, you may want to pick something less gory than Down In Yon Forest, especially in the presence of young children. On the other hand, you could stick with this song and take it as an excuse to deliver a lecture on medieval blood-mysticism during your family’s Christmas dinner. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Whatever you choose to do, I hope you enjoy the holidays, and wish you all a merry Christmas!

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2 Responses to “Down In Yon Forest” – A song about Christmas, Easter and, probably, the Holy Grail…

  1. Philippa Chapman says:

    The lyrics;
    ‘The one half runs water, the other runs blood’ and ‘There grows a thorn which ever blows blossom since he was born’ seem to refer very strongly to Glastonbury, Somerset, UK. The town has two publicly available springs; one white and the other reddish in colour. The thorn is the Holy Thorn, reputedly brought to the town by Joseph of Arimathea.

  2. Pingback: Corpus Christi Carol aka Down In Yon Forest… – Exponential Detritus

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