Yo-Yo Ma, Alison Krauss [and Natalie MacMaster] – The Wexford Carol (Video)

At Saturday’s Christmas party at Clayville Historic Site, we noodled around with the “Wexford Carol,” a haunting Irish song that retells the Nativity story in the gospel of St. Luke. We didn’t get very far, and I promised to see if I could find a lead sheet. While I was looking for it, I came across a raucous Irish-English-American ballad sometimes known as the “Old Woman from Wexford.” A thoroughly secular piece of work, it tells the story of an unfaithful woman who tries to trick her husband but gets tricked instead.

Wexford Carol [aka Enniscorthy Christmas Carol]

The Slowplayers.org website, which bills itself as the “Best ITM [Irish traditional music] Tune-Learning Tutor” (and has credible reason to make that claim), has a transcription with both the lyrics and the dots. A background note says:

Sometimes it is played in C Aeolian (i.e., Cm), of all the crazy modes (see the second transcription below), but the first transcription here is in the more accessible key of G, with lyrics included (by Kevin Goess). It is played in other modes as well, which shouldn’t be surprising as this tune is one of the oldest extant Christmas carols in the European tradition.

You can find it at http://slowplayers.org/2014/11/04/wexford-carol/.

A contributor to The Session, another indispensable Irish traditional website, gives this background at https://thesession.org/tunes/6500:

The Wexford Carol as named in the Oxford book of carols published in 1928 and edited by Percy Dearmer; Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw is carol No. 14. This beautiful melodic Christmas Carol is known in County Wexford as the Enniscorthy Christmas Carol. It was collected c.1911 by Dr. William Henry Grattan Flood in the Coolamain area of Oylgate just approx. 7 miles from Enniscorthy. Dr. Flood transcribed the melody and the lyrics from an elderly lady living in the area. Initially sung by the children of St. Aidan’s National School, Enniscorthy it was quickly taken up by many singers in the area spreading its popularity both locally and abroad by missionary priests from Enniscorthy. The carol is deemed to have medieval origins and is simple in construction. The lyrics of the carol give the full Christmas story in its verses.

Old Woman From Wexford [aka Tipping it up to Nancy; Eggs and Marrow Bones]

According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eggs_and_Marrowbone), it has “unknown origins, [and] there are multiple variations.” Under different names, it is widely attested both in the British Isles and America, where it was quoted in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and, closer to home for us in central Illinois, Edgar Lee Masters’ The Sangamon. John Armstrong of rural Menard County sang it for him in 1914 (see an earlier iteration of this blog for a citation, links and videos of several variants). Wikipedia lists a few:

The most well known variations are “The Old Woman From Boston” and “The Rich Old Lady”. Other versions include “The Aul’ Man and the Churnstaff”, and “Woman from Yorkshire.” In Scotland it is known as “The Wily Auld Carle” or “The Wife of Kelso.” In Ireland there are variations called “The Old Woman of Wexford” and “Tigaree Torum Orum.” In England the song is widely known as “Marrowbones”.

“A similar song, “Johnny Sands” ([Roud, S, and Bishop, J, The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs [London, 2012] 184), was written by John Sinclair about 1840 and also became popular with local singers.” [2][5] In this version the husband pretends to be tired of life, and asks his wife to tie his hands behind his back.

“Johnny Sands” is widely attested in America, too, and a variant called “Old Woman in Slab City” appears in David S. McIntosh, Folk Songs and Singing Games of the Illinois Ozarks (Carbondale: SIU Press, 1974). Mike Anderson has recorded it and occasionally performs it.

Christy Moore – Tippin’ It Up To Nancy

One thought on “Two very different tunes from County Wexford

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