Cutty Wren

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"Cutty Wren"
GenreEnglish folk song

The Cutty Wren and its variants such as The Hunting of the Wren are traditional English folk songs. It is also the territorial song for the British overseas territory of Tristan da Cunha. The origins and meaning of the song are disputed. It is number 236 in the Roud Folk Song Index.


The song is thought by some to represent the human sacrifice of the Year King, or the symbolic substitute slaughter of the wren as "king of the birds" at the end of the year for similar purposes, and such songs are traditionally sung on Boxing Day (26 December), just after the winter solstice. 26 December is sometimes called St Stephen's Day or Wren Day. These rituals are discussed in The Golden Bough.

It is alternatively attributed to the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381, and the wren is supposed to be the young king Richard II, who is killed and fed to the poor. However, there is no strong evidence to connect this song with the Peasants' Revolt. The idea seems to have originated in A.L. Lloyd's 1944 book The Singing Englishman.[1] The liner notes to Chumbawamba's album English Rebel Songs 1381–1914 state categorically that the song was written in the fourteenth century. However, the earliest known text is from Herd's "Scots Songs" of 1776. The song is given no title, but begins with these words:

Will ze go to the wood? quo' FOZIE MOZIE;
Will ze go to the wood? quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE;
Will ze go to the wood? quo' FOSLIN'ene;
Will ze go to the wood? quo' brither and kin.

What to do there? quo' FOZIE MOZIE;
What to do there? quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE;
What to do there? quo' FOSLIN'ene;
What to do there? quo' brither and kin.

To slay the WREN, quo' FOZIE MOZIE:
To slay the WREN, quo' JOHNIE REDNOZIE:
To slay the WREN, quo' FOSLIN'ene:
To slay the WREN, quo' brither and kin.[2]

The dialect word "cutty", meaning "small" or "short", is found in Northern England and the Scottish lowlands,[3][4] suggesting that versions of the song that use the word come from these regions.

Variants of the song exist across the British Isles. The often quoted "Milder to Moulder" version first appears in Cecil Sharp's "English Folk Songs" (1920), under the title "Green Bushes". In Orkney a version called "The Brethren Three" (published 1915) describes the song as a lullaby. ("We'll aff tae the wids, says Tosie Mosie"). Aside from the English and Scottish versions, it exists in Welsh (Hela'r Dryw") and Manx ("Helg Yn Dreain").[5]

In the USA the song has undergone considerable evolution into the song "Billy Barlow", first known in 1916.

The Hunting of the Wren[edit]

The Hunting of the Wren is thought by many folklorists[who?] to be related to the nursery-rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin. On or near the winter solstice people hunted and killed the wren for its supposed misdeed.[clarification needed] The custom of killing wrens on 26 December was mostly stamped out in the British Isles by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, according to William S. Walsh in Curiosities of Popular Customs.

In Ireland a hunt for the wren generally took place on St Stephen's Day (26 December). In a procession the same night, lads dressed in bizarre costumes made of straw and colourful cloth carried branches from which hung the body of the wren, as they sang:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
On St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze
Although he was little, his power is great
So up with the kettle and down with the plate!

On the Isle of Man, up to the end of the eighteenth century, the ceremony (which has parallels in France and Galicia) was observed on Christmas morning.

American versions mention a squirrel, rat or other small animal rather than a wren. The Chieftains' stage performances have included dancers dressed as Wrenboys in straw clothes. This has been captured on the album The Bells of Dublin, which includes six tracks devoted to the ceremony, singing and dancing.

Chips with Everything[edit]

In Arnold Wesker's play Chips with Everything (1962), the conscripts sing "The Cutty Wren" with more and more aggression with each verse. This is fairly incomprehensible unless the connection with the Peasants' Revolt is made. Perhaps Wesker had read A.L. Lloyd's book. The two of them had worked together at "Centre 42" in 1960. 1962 was the year in which Ian Campbell decided to include the song on his album Songs of Protest. It is possible that between the three of them they have generated an artificial mythology of a workers' revolt being somehow connected with this song. Maud Karpeles was the first to question Lloyd's proposition.[6]

Traditional Recordings[edit]

The song has also been recorded numerous times from traditional singers in England; versions are available on the British Library Sound Archive from Newcastle,[7] Hull,[8] Oxfordshire[9] and Lancashire.[10]

Joe and Winifred Woods of Douglas, Isle of Man, sang a version of the song learnt in their childhood to Peter Kennedy in 1965, which can be heard on the British Library Sound Archive website.[11]

A few versions were recorded in the United States[12][13] including one sung by Don Gaetz of Clifton, Arkansas in 1967,[14] which can be heard via the Max Hunter Folk Collection website.[15]

Popular recordings[edit]

  • 1939: Topic Records TRC7 Side B, Topic Singers, as "Cutty Wren"
  • 1953: "American Folk Songs for Children", Pete Seeger, as "Billy Barlow"
  • 1955: "The Lark in the Morning", Liam Clancy, as "The Wran Song"
  • 1958: "Texas Folksongs", Alan Lomax, as "Billy Barlow"
  • 1962: "Songs of Protest", The Ian Campbell Folk Group, as "The Cutty Wren"
  • 1967: "So Much for Dreaming", Ian and Sylvia, as "Cutty Wren"
  • 1977: "No Relation", Royston and Heather Wood, as "The Cutty Wren"
  • 1977: "Sound Sound Your Instruments of Joy", The Watersons, as "Joy, Health, Love and Peace"
  • 1978: "Live at Last", Steeleye Span, as "Hunting The Wren"
  • 1979: "The Second Nowell", John Roberts, Tony Barrand, Fred Breunig & Steve Woodruff, as "The Cutty Wren"
  • 1980: "Tidewave", Robin Dransfield as "The Cutty Wren" – Topic vinyl LP recorded 1974/79/80 published 1980, re-released as Disk 1 of double CD set "A Lighter Touch", 2008.
  • 1986: "Winter's Turning", Robin Williamson, as "Hunting the Wren"
  • 1988: English Rebel Songs 1381-1914, Chumbawamba, as "The Cutty Wren (Part 1)" and "The Cutty Wren (Part 2)"
  • 1991: "Bells of Dublin", The Chieftains 1991, six tracks
  • 1994: "Yellowknife Evening", Ceilidh Friends, as "The cutty wren"
  • 1994: "The Day Dawn", Boys of the Lough, medley of four Scots and Irish wren tunes
  • 1994 "The Lovers Enchained", Annwn, as "The Cutty Wren"
  • 1996: "Smoked Fish And Friends", Leslie Fish, as "Cutty Wren"
  • 1996: Time, Steeleye Span, as "The Cutty Wren"
  • 1998: "Wassail!", John Kirkpatrick, as "Hunting the Wren"
  • 2001: "Up in the North, Down in the South" Bill Whiting (Virginia) as "I'm Going to the Woods"
  • 2003: English Rebel Songs 1381-1984, Chumbawamba, as "The Cutty Wren"
  • 2006: Ballad of America volume 2, Matthew Sabatella, as "Billy Barlow"
  • 2009: The Awkward Recruit, Mawkin:Causley, as "Cutty Wren"
  • 2009: Tales from the Crow Man, Damh the Bard as "The Cutty Wren"
  • 2012: "Lips of Clay" album by Solarference, as "Milder and Mulder"
  • 2021: The Cutty Wren, The Cutty Wren EP, Helen McCookerybook & Willie Gibson, Gare du Nord Records

There is a Breton tune called "The Wren", played by Maggie Sansone on the album A Celtic Fair (2007), but it is not clear if this is related to the ceremony.

Jack Bruce utilized the melody of "Cutty Wren" for the bass part in the Cream's 1968 song "Pressed Rat and Warthog."

A 1990 parody of the song, titled "Hunting the Cutty Wren", can be found on the album "Oranges and Lemmings" by the Mrs Ackroyd Band, with lyrics by Les Barker, performed by Martin Carthy and June Tabor.

See also[edit]

  • Cock Robin
  • Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood Hunting the Wren...Transformation of Bird to Symbol 1997 ISBN 0-87049-960-2
  • The Boys of Barr na Sráide


  1. ^ The Singing Englishman
  2. ^ Mudcat
  3. ^ "cutty". Wiktionary.
  4. ^ "cutty". Collins Dictionary.
  5. ^ "St Stephen and the Wren". Archived from the original on 29 December 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2008.
  6. ^ [1], Canadian Journal for Traditional Music
  7. ^ "Billy To Bob - Reg Hall English, Irish and Scottish Folk Music and Customs Collection - World and traditional music | British Library - Sounds". Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  8. ^ "Hunting the wren - Steve Gardham English Folk Music Collection - World and traditional music | British Library - Sounds". Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  9. ^ "Hunting the wren - Terry Yarnell English and Irish Folk Music Collection - World and traditional music | British Library - Sounds". Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  10. ^ "Robin a Bobbin - Nick and Mally Dow English Folk Music Collection - World and traditional music | British Library - Sounds". Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  11. ^ "Joe Woods and Winifred Woods, Douglas, Isle of Man 1965. Tape 1 - Peter Kennedy Collection - World and traditional music | British Library - Sounds". Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  12. ^ "Let's Go Hunting (Roud Folksong Index S313512)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 9 November 2020.
  13. ^ "Let's Go to the Woods Said Richard to Robin (Roud Folksong Index S242231)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 9 November 2020.
  14. ^ "Billy Barlow (Roud Folksong Index S266301)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 9 November 2020.
  15. ^ "Song Information". Retrieved 9 November 2020.