Album notes: "If there were a contest for the title of 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."
An interesting tale:
Bruce Cockburn, in a CD called "Christmas" (1993) sings a strange, erie carol called "Down in Yon Forest". In his album notes he says the song "Down in Yon Forest" hails from North Carolina, but that he believes it to be "of great age". I agree with him about the melodic style, which sounds like it's in a medieval mode, but I have a far stronger verification regarding the lyrics themselves.
There is a hymn that is clearly a variant to this carol which appears in the poetry section of what Americans refer to as the the "Irish" Breviary (this Breviary is used by Roman Catholic priests, monks, and nuns to pray the Divine Office in England, Wales, Ireland, and Australia; it is distinct - a different translation, different hymns, etc. - from the one used in the U.S. and other English speaking countries).
The poem, entitled "Corpus Christi Carol" is given first place under the "Lent and Easter" heading, which suggests that it is important in Great Britain's religious music tradition. The Feast of Corpus Christi ("Body of Christ", honouring the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist) is celebrated in late May or June, after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, so it might at first glance seem to be remote from Christmas. But all these Mysteries of the faith are intimately intertwined, and there is even a verse in Bruce's song - the final verse - that seems a clear reference to the Eucharistic Body and Blood. Typing this from memory his last verse runs something like:
"All hail that hall in which none can sin
All gold without and silver within
That is almost certainly a description of the Eucharistic Chalice which holds the Blood of Christ (though I'm more used to seeing silver on the outside and gold within). This would also be in keeping with the ancient undertone in Bruce's carol linking the blood of the king with the fertility of the land, for the Eucharistic Blood of Our Lord gives life to all mankind. (We Catholics believe that all of the earliest religions contained foreshadowings pointing toward the fullness of Christ.)
The origin of this hymn in my Breviary? I'd say defintely not Irish! Most of my favourite hymns are Irish, and that genre is quite different. This "feels" more like it's English, and yes, ancient. I can't offer anything more specific than that, but thought Bruce would find this much (that a variant of his song appears in the Engish/Irish Breviary) to be of interest.
Here is the hymn:
Corpus Christi Carol (Refrain) Lully, lullay, lully, lullay,
The falcon hath borne my make away.
He bore him up, he bore him down;
He bore him into an orchard brown.
In that orchard there was an hall,
That was hanged with purple and pall.
And in that hall there was a bed
It was hanged with gold so red.
And in that bed there lieth a knight,
His woundes bleeding day and night.
By that bed's side there kneeleth a may,
And she weepeth both night and day.
And by that bed's side there standeth a stone,
Corpus Christi written thereon.
-- from "An Anonymous Contributor from Santa Fe, NM".
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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.