The Bitter Withy

From Spanking Art

Live performance by the Scottish folk group A Bitter Withy.

"Bitter Withy" played by Jackie Oates & Saul Rose.

The Bitter Withy is an English folk song (also said to be a Scots-cum-Appalachian ballad or carol). It is also known as "The Bitter Withy Tree", "The Withies", "Three Jolly Jerdins" or "The Sally Twigs". The song reflects an unusual and apocryphal vernacular idea of Jesus Christ. The withy of the title is the willow (note: "withy" is specifically the name given to strong flexible willow stems).

The song gives an explanation as to why the willow tree rots from the centre out, rather than the outside in. The story told in the song has been traced back to a legend from around the 14th century. Interestingly, the song has not caused anywhere as much scandal as Max Ernst's 1926 painting The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child, despite the fact that the story must seem even more outrageous from a Christian point of view:

  • Jesus being portrayed as a boy who abuses his divine powers by killing three boys who have refused to play with him. (This bears some similarity to certain stories of Jesus in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas.)
  • The punishment he receives for this "mischief" (actually an act of triple murder) being three strokes with a bunch of willow twigs.
  • After these three slashes across the knee of Mary mild he puts a curse on the tree from which the twigs were taken.

The song is given an update in a recent recording by the British folk artist John Tams on his album 'The Reckoning' (2005; won 2006 the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for the 'Best Album') and is contained in 'The Definitive Collection' (2007) also.


The Bitter Withy
As it fell out on a high holiday
Small rain from heaven did fall,
Sweet Jesus asked his mother dear
If he might play at ball.
"To play, to play," dear child she did say
"It's time that you were gone
And don't let me hear of any mischief
At night when you come home."
So it's up the hill and down the hill
Our sweet young savior ran,
And there he met three rich young lords,
Good morning to each one.
"Good morn," "Good morn," "Good morn," they said,
"Good morning," then said he,
And which of you three fine children
Will play at the ball with me?
Oh, we are lords and ladies sons
Born in a bower and hall
And you are nothing but a poor maid's child
Born in an oxen stall.
Well, if I'm nothing but a poor maid's child
Born in an oxen stall,
I'll make you believe in your latter end,
For I'm an angel above you all.
So he built a him a bridge of the beams of the sun
And over the water ran he,
Them three little lords followed after him
Drowned they were all three.
So it's up the hill and down the hill
Three rich young mothers ran,
Crying, "Mary mild, fetch home your child,
For ours he's drownded each one."
So Mary mild fetched home her child,
And laid him across her knee,
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him slashes three.
Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy,
You've caused me to smart,
And the withy shall be the very first tree
To perish at the heart.

Biblical Source[edit]

The Bitter Withy seems to be a relecture of a possibly displeasing pericope.

The Fig Tree, Cursed by Jesus, Withered

(12) And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:
(13) And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.
(14) And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.

(20) And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.
(21) And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.
  Mark 11:12-14 20-21


See also[edit]