Now that we're having our yearly lesson about Peace On Earth And Good Will To Men, here's a little test: do you believe that the events described in this song ever happened? If you do, you have lots of company. After all, stories like these are why we warn our children not to get into cars with strangers or to accept invitations to visit fatal flower gardens. British versions of this ballad give lots of specifics, allowing scholars (see Child #155) to find the event in written records. The Annals Of Waverly for the year 1255 give the whole story: Hugh, of Lincoln, age nine, is enticed into a Jew's garden, after which he's tortured and crucified to mock Christians (a particularly stupid act in a Christian country like England). They try to hide the body (which makes no sense if it's a mocking act), but it can't be discarded. When buried or thrown in the river, it miraculously reappears. It's thrown in a well, but it floats, and, when brought up, a blind woman touches it and regains her sight. After some torture, the Jews confess, resulting in their execution, along with that of dozens of other (mostly wealthy) Jews throughout England.
Not satisfied with such specifics, Child follows the story back to at least 419 C.E. in Syria, and he cites examples from all the European countries. The stories are usually specific as to the boy's name and age, giving location and date. A similar story set in Spain was the inspiration for Ferdinand and Isabella's creation of the Spanish Inquisition. Given the history of this past sad century, you would not be surprised to find that the story has wide currency in Germany, Poland, and Russia.
The best way to learn this song is to buy a copy of Smithsonian-Folkways reissue of the monumental Folkways Anthology Of American Folk Music. Besides eighty-three other fabulous pieces, you'll get this version performed by a southern Alabama duet called Nelstone's Hawaiians. The tune seems to ask for modern (for the 1920s) techniques, like the smooth singing harmony and slide Hawaiian (Dobro) guitar (tuned DGBGBD) used on the recording. I like to add the lush chords of an autoharp, but ordinary guitars work fine, also.
When our children were pre-teens, we'd sing them songs on long
to alleviate boredom. They repeatedly requested this one. I'm not sure
- maybe it was the ritual nature of the boy's instructions at the end,
maybe it was the finger rings. We were careful to point out that it was
fiction, and they have not grown up to be Gypsyphobics. Still, this is
difficult song, because we find it so easy to believe that, as Sartre
it, "Evil is the other." Instilling fear of evil therefore involves
fear of the outsider. But fear is as corrosive as hate, and although we
warn our children about strangers, family members commit almost all
murders. How do you warn about that?
It rained, it poured, it rained so hard,
It rained so hard all day,
That all the boys in our school
Came out to toss and play.
They tossed a ball again so high,
Then again, so low;
They tossed it into a flower garden
Where no-one was allowed to go.
Up stepped a gypsy lady,
All dressed in yellow and green;
"Come in, come in, my pretty little boy,
And get your ball again."
"I can't come in, I shan't come in
Without my playmates all;
I'll go to my father and tell him about it,
That'll cause tears to fall."
She first showed him an apple seed,
Then again gold rings,
Then she showed him a diamond,
That enticed him in.
She took him by his lily-white hand,
She led him through the hall;
She put him in an upper room,
Where no-one could hear him call.
"Oh, take these finger rings off my finger,
Smoke them with your breath;
If any of my friends should call for me,
Tell them that I'm at rest."
"Bury the bible at my head,
A testament at my feet;
If my dear mother should call for me,
Tell her that I'm asleep."
"Bury the bible at my feet,
A testament at my head;
If my dear father should call for me,
Tell him that I am dead."
This is one of the most popular of the old ballads. There are fully 21 texts in the Child collection, where it is piece #155. Bronson reports the amazing total of 66 tunes. It has been reported throughout England, in parts of Scotland, in Ireland, in the Canadian Maritimes, and in all parts of the U.S. east of the Mississippi (though rarely if ever west of it). American versions are reported by, among others, Randolph (#25), Eddy (#20), Flanders/Olney, (pp. 30-32, Little Harry Huston), McNeil (pp. 147-149, Sonny Hugh), and Sharp (assorted versions).
We might add that the account in the Annals of Waverly is almost universally held to be unhistorical. This tale probably does not arise from actual events, but from fear of outsiders. For example, in many versions the child-stealer is a Gypsy -- but there is not one verified instance of child-stealing by Gypsies.