Cutty Wren

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"Cutty Wren"
GenreEnglish folk song

The Cutty Wren and its variants like The Hunting of the Wren are traditional English folk songs. The origins and meaning of the song are disputed. It 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 number 236 in the Roud Folk Song Index.

The rebellious wren?[edit]

On the other hand, it is also 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. This 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" 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]

There is a version in Welsh, "Hela'r Dryw"; also one in Manx ("Helg Yn Dreain"), published by the Manx Society in 1869.[3] 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"). The often quoted "Milder to Moulder" version first appears in Cecil Sharp's "English Folk Songs" (1920), under the title "Green Bushes".

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

In Ireland the hunt generally took place on St Stephen's Day (26 December) and the procession that night, lads dressed in bizarre costumes made of straw and colourful cloth carrying 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 was observed on Christmas morning. In Carcassonne (France), in the nineteenth century, it was on the first Sunday in December. The 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 Bells of Dublin, which includes six tracks devoted to the ceremony, singing and dancing.

The Hunting of the Wren is the culmination of the myth of the Wren who kills Cock Robin. On or near the winter solstice the populace hunted and killed the Wren for its supposed misdeed. 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.

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.[4]


  • 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"
  • 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"

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.

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