Joan Baez, “The Cherry-Tree Carol”

Written by December 20th, 2010 at 11:30 am

“The Cherry-Tree Carol” is one of the few Christmas songs that was also collected by the American scholar James Francis Child, in his famous Child Ballads, published in ten volumes beginning in 1882. The narrative focuses on an apocryphal story of the Virgin Mary and Joseph, traveling to Bethlehem – Mary pregnant with the baby Jesus. Child actually found four different versions of the song (54A-D) during his extensive research of English and Scottish traditional music. In the second and third versions, an angel speaks to Joseph, and foretells Jesus’s birth in an “ox’s stall.” At the conclusion of the second version, Jesus also discloses to his mother his death: “And upon Good Friday/ My death I will take.” The story centers around Joseph’s anger towards Mary, pregnant with baby Jesus and “so meek and mild.” She asks Joseph to pick cherries for her when the couple stops in an orchard to rest. Joseph refuses – “Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee!” – at which point baby Jesus speaks from the womb, and then miraculously bends down the branches for Mary to reach.

The song gained more widespread popularity in the ’60s folk revival, with Joan Baez’s version on her second album, Joan Baez, Vol. 2 (Vanguard, 1961), being one of the earliest and still most widely recognized. Baez’s version follows Child’s 54A version quite closely, but after the seventh verse, leaves out the remaining five verses. The English guitarist Davy Graham and singer Shirley Collins recorded the song on their 1964 album for Decca, Folk Route, New Routes, and fellow Brit-folkers Pentangle recorded it on 1972′s Soloman’s Seal. Emmylou Harris recorded a version of “The Cherry-Tree Carol” with Kate and Anna McGarrigle and released it as a bonus track on the 2004 remastered version of her 1979 Christmas album, Light In The Stable, a perennial favorite, in which she’s joined by Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton, among others. More recently, Sting recorded a version in 2009 for his album, If On A Winter’s Night… Sting seems to have taken most of his cues from Baez, though, oddly, the baby Jesus never speaks from the womb. Instead, the tree magically bows down after Joseph’s refusal to pick cherries.

“The Cherry-Tree Carol”

When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee

Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard green
There were cherries and berries, as thick as might be seen
There were cherries and berries, as thick as might be seen

Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild:
Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child
Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child

Then Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee!
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee!

Then up spoke baby Jesus, from in Mary’s womb:
Bend down the tallest branches, that my mother might have some
Bend down the tallest branches, that my mother might have some

And bend down the tallest branches, it touched Mary’s hand
Cried she: Oh look thou Joseph, I have cherries by command
Oh look thou Joseph, I have cherries by command

Traditional (as sung by Joan Baez)

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