The Cherry Tree Carol

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, December 1995)

For some reason that I've never been able to fathom, Christianity and the Christmas story have never had a strong place in traditional music. Francis James Child, in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, listed 305 traditional English-language ballads; by my count, exactly seven of these have religious themes.Vance Randolph's Ozark Folksongs (arguably the best collection of American folk tunes) lists 68 religious pieces, but apart from a few spirituals, all are by church or popular composers.

There is one major exception: The Cherry Tree Carol. This piece, Child #54, was collected in Britain in the seventeenth century (and is probably older), and has been found throughout the Appalachians, as well as in the Ozarks and on into Canada. Jean Ritchie recorded an Appalachian version on "Kentucky Christmas."

The story may have originated in the "Infancy Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew," an apocryphal Latin work of the ninth century. In it, the miracle took place after Jesus's birth. Joseph, Jesus, and Mary were fleeing from King Herod when Mary became faint from the heat. Joseph led her under a date palm tree to rest. Mary begged Joseph to get her some of the dates. Joseph was astonished; the tree was too tall to climb. But Jesus (who was no more than two years old) commanded the palm, "Bow down, tree, and refresh my mother with your fruit." And bow down it did, and remained until Jesus ordered it to straighten up (and be carried up into heaven!)

The earliest English versions seem to have included three parts: the story of Joseph's jealousy (found in the Bible in Matthew 1:18 & :25) and the cherry tree; the angel's message to Joseph on Christmas Eve, and a conversation between Mary and the baby Jesus (who may not even have been born yet). In it he predicts his crucifixion and, as here, his birth on January 6, the "old-style Christmas" which many people in the Appalachians celebrated until early in this century.

The tune here is from Kentucky; the text is composite.
Note to pickers: you will observe that I put all the high B notes on the G string rather than the B string. There are two reasons for this: it sounds better with a hammered-in B, and this way you can play the piece in DADGAD tuning and use a bunch of modal chords.

Cherry Tree

Complete Lyrics:

When Joseph was an old man,
An old man was he,
When he courted Virgin Mary,
The Queen of Galilee,
When he courted Virgin Mary,
The Queen of Galilee,

As Joseph and Mary
Were walking one day,
"Here are apples and cherries,"
O Mary did say....

Then Mary spoke to Joseph,
So meek and so mild,
"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!"

Then Jesus spoke a few words,
A few words spoke he,
"Let my mother have some cherries;
Bow low down, cherry tree!

"Bow down, O cherry tree!
Bow low down to the ground!"
Then Mary gathered cherries
While Joseph stood around....

Then Joseph took Mary
All on his left knee;
Saying: "What have I done? Lord,
Have mercy on me!"

Then Joseph took Mary
All on his right knee,
"Pray tell me, little baby,
When your birthday shall be....

"On the sixth day of January
My birthday shall be,
When the stars and the elements
Shall tremble with glee....


As Joseph was a-walking,
He heard an angel sing,
"Tonight shall be the birth-time
Of Christ, our heavenly king...."

"He neither shall be born
In house nor in hall,
Nor in the place of paradise,
But in an ox's stall....

"He neither shall be clothéd
In purple nor in pall
But in the bare white linen
That useth babies all....

As Joseph was a-walking,
Then did an angel sing,
And Mary's child at midnight
Was born to be our king....

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