Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Edgar Lee Tyler on "Bitter Withy"

I posed my query on The Bitter Withy to my cyber-friend Ed Tyler, and here's what he said on the topic (plus my responses):
Always happy to be of help, such as it can be. The following is my take on Bitter Withy in the Ozarks, and I have appended a small bibliography.
As I previously noted, Ed is one of the most helpful people I know. When I was working on a scholarly article -- well, an attempt at a scholarly article -- on Beowulf, Ed (who knows Anglo-Saxon in addition to knowing Serbo-Croation, or vice-versa) pointed out scholarly works, gave some etymological explanations, and even read the rough-draft article to provide further suggestions.

He's just as helpful with this current, Bitter Withy obsession of mine:
First, a word on the willow.

I do not believe that this ballad has anything to do with the general opprobrium in which some mountain folk hold or held the willow tree. For one reason, as the attestations indicate, the ballad "Bitter Withy" is not at all widespread. There are several reasons for this, of course:

The primitive Baptist churches, and later Pentecostal churches, that populate the region would certainly find it blasphemous. The ballad survived to be recorded at all as hardly more than a curiousity.

Also, the willow tree is put to considerable use by the granny woman, who use its bark to make analgesics and treatments for fever, and use extracts of its sap and leaves for poultice ingredients, so its "mystical" qualities are just a little scary to the uninitiated.

Finally, the tree can be something of a pest. During the protracted droughts that often begin in June and run through September or October, the proximity of a willow tree can cause your well to drop to a distressing level, or suck a small pond dry.

So we need not turn to the ballad to account for the prejudice Chapman notes.
I think that Ed's right on all counts. My own astonishment upon reading this poem a couple of days ago (which I noted) probably stems from my own Ozark Baptist background. I never heard the ballad where I grew up and really doubt that any but a few people did if any at all. The ballad cannot be widespread. Only statements of its existence as a mountaineer ballad persuade me that it really was sung in places like the Ozarks and the Appalachians.

On that point, see a remarkable letter ("Max Ernst's Blasphemy") from Leo Steinberg to the New York Review of Books (Volume 52, Number 14, September 22, 2005) in which Steinberg notes the connection between infancy gospels, the Bitter Withy ballad, and such high art figures as Max Ernst and André Breton, both of whom depicted Mary spanking the child Jesus.

Of particular interest here is Steinberg's citation of a letter that he had previously received from a folksinger, Robin Roberts, on this 'heretical' story of Mary spanking Jesus that we find reflected both in high art and the ballad. In the words of Mr. Roberts:
This heresy did not originate with Mr. Ernst. There is a remarkable Scots cum Appalachian ballad, "The Bitter Withy Tree," in which Jesus curses the tree for providing the switch with which Mary beats him for murdering three young boys. They had refused to play ball with him.

We are sons of lords and ladies all
And born in bower and hall
While you are only a Jew maid's child
Born in an ox's stall.
He builded a bridge from the beams of the sun
And over the water danced he,
There followed him those rich young men
And drownded they were all three.

Somehow, it doesn't sound heretical when you sing it.
Steinberg follows this citation of the Roberts letter with a scholarly resource supplied:
Further correspondence with Ms. Roberts adduced copious scholarship (from the Journal of the Folk-Song Society, London, Vols. II, 1905–1906, and IV, 1910–1913) concerning text and tune of "The Bitter Withy."
Steinberg then notes that the likely background to both high- and low-art uses of the spanking theme is to be found in the various infancy stories of apocryphal gospels, point that I'll return to in a moment.

But first, let's return to Ed Tyler's remarks, which I interrupted:
The ballad is one of innumerable survivals of Elizabethan word art in the Ozarks. I would refer anyone interested to the prolific writings of Vance Randolph on these survivals. The particular ballad form itself is attested by Childs and others well back into the Medieval period -- my guess would put it at least a century prior to its earliest textual attestation of c.1350. It was widely circulated in England, and was transmitted in several multiforms including a versions called "The Holy Well." However, the lyrics as they exist in the editions I have seen could not have been composed before the first half of the 16th Century.
Vance Randolph is great for anything on Ozark folk culture. I've got in my office his book Pissing in the Snow, a 'study' of off-color Ozark jokes. I'd be interested, by the way, in knowing what other "Elizabethan" connections there are in the Ozarks. Some of these would probably reflect the use of the King James Bible up until recent times. I recall old folks praying in King James English, using thou and thee and thy and thine correctly, along with the archaic verb forms. They didn't generally speak this way, but they reverted to it when praying.

Anyway, back to Ed:
Of course the ultimate source of the tale is to be found in the various "infancy gospels" that proliferated since late antiquity. The incorporation of noncanonical tales and legends of Jesus into the European folk traditions is commonplace. For instance, a surviving text of an Old High German healing incantation tells of Jesus healing the lame horse of St. Peter as they ride to Thessalonika. It is a multiform of an older incantation in which Woden heals Baldur's horse. Noncanonical narratives from ancient texts proliferated in the oral tradition, transmitted through ballads, carols, legends, folktales, and other modes such as these incantations.
Interesting, this mixture of pagan and Christain, both orthodox and unorthodox. As I've often told students in my history course (and, for that matter, my literature courses), Western Civilization is a synthesis of pagan and Christian.

On this point, let me return, as promised, to the infancy stories of apocryphal gospels. Another online scholar, Dr Dianne Tillotson, has an interest in this stuff:
For a tale which seems to have escaped from even the medieval apocrypha into the wild woods of folklore, give your spine a shiver by listening to Mike Waterson's rendition of Bitter Withy.
For more on Tillotson's interests, see her website on Medieval Writings. But for now, let's return to Ed, who noted an online resource with information on the Bitter Withy:
A good representative version of the Bitter Withy can be found at:

Hymns and Carols
Ed must have missed this link in my blogpost. At any rate, he then added a brief bibliography on The Bitter Withy:
"The *Bitter Withy*" and Its Relationship to "The Holy Well"
W. J. Titland
The Journal of American Folklore, 1967 - American Folklore Society

*The Ballad of The Bitter Withy*
Gordon Hall Gerould
PMLA, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1908) , pp. 141-167:

*"The Holy Well": A Medieval Religious Ballad*
Janet M. Graves
Western Folklore, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1967) , pp. 13-26

*An American Homiletic Ballad*
Phillips Barry
Modern Language Notes, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan., 1913) , pp. 1-5

*Folk Songs as Socio-Historical Documents*
John Greenway
Western Folklore, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1960) , pp. 1-9

*Folk-Lore, Folk-Life, Ethnology*
R. U. Sayce
Folklore, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Jun., 1956) , pp. 66-83
Fascinating stuff. If any readers know more, please let us know.


At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Ian Myles Slater said...

The concept of Jesus as a disturbing and dangerous child, clashing with playmates and teachers, goes back to the apocryphal "Infancy Gospel" attributed to Thomas. It circulated in variant forms many languages (Syriac, Greek, Latin, Slavonic, etc.). Stories based on it, retold as separate anecdotes, seem to have been common, also.

It is very strange stuff, but does not, I think, offer an identifiable heresy. It certainly takes the doctrine of the Incarnation very seriously -- nothing Docetic here! Where it stands on the Two Natures -- well, it hardly reaches that level of sophistication!

There are on-line versions of the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas," which are worth a look. But they all seem to be taken from an eighteenth-century (and so very out-of-copyright) translation that was included in the 1926 "Lost Books of the Bible," a frequently-reprinted volume. I recently reviewed one of these editions for Amazon, mentioning a number of collections of modern translations -- too many for a comment here.

If there are later renderings available on the Internet (like that by M.R. James from 1924), I'm afraid I missed them.

I recall a lecture by Don Ward at UCLA, in which he described a German folksong about the young Jesus, Mary, and a cruel Schoolmaster, in which the Holy Family speaks in local dialect, the teacher in formal High German. Unfortunately, I don't remember if the plot came from the schoolteacher stories in the Infancy Gospel; just the bit about the use of dialect for characterization.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, I agree that the theme of this ballad goes back to something like the "Infancy Gospel" that you note, for this seems generally acknowledged.

This difficulty is that the specific infancy gospels still extant lack this specific story, so far as I am aware.

The Jesus and Joses legend seems somehow connected, but it also has differences. Also, I'm not sure where this legend comes from.

I think that the concern over the heretical implications stems from the inference that Jesus did something wrong and was justifiably punished by his mother Mary, though the punishment seems not to fit the 'crime' -- a spanking for causing three deaths?

Still, the cause of the deaths is obscure. Did the "three jolly jerdins" plunge to their deaths through lack of faith, like Peter sinking beneath the waves?

If so, was the punishment undeserved?

Lots of questions remain.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:14 AM, Anonymous Ian Myles Slater said...

I was trying to point out that the *story* belongs to very old, well-established type, and probably doesn't require a special explanation -- although its survival in a post-medieval environment is indeed surprising.

Actually, The Bitter Withy in particular is a lot milder in its portrait of the young Jesus than are the apparent prototypes. The deaths are brought about by an ill-advised attempt to either test the miracle or emulate Jesus. The Infancy Gospel pattern would call for Jesus to just utter a curse when offended, bringing about immediate death; and, when reproved, to strike blind those who complained. (Come to think of it, the apocryphal Jesus-as-a-child resembles a lot of medieval saints as adults.)

One of the curses is for a child to wither "like a tree" -- often thought to be an allusion to the mysterious cursing of the fig tree in the canonical Gospels. I have to wonder if the New Testament model has been followed directly in the modern set of stories, or if the apocryphal story has somehow been refracted back into a version resembling its source, but with a different tree. I would go with the former, unless there is good evidence for intermediary examples.

At 8:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian wrote:

"Come to think of it, the apocryphal Jesus-as-a-child resembles a lot of medieval saints as adults."

That's an interesting observation. I wonder if one influenced the other or if both reflect the same Medieval mindset.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Ian Myles Slater said...

Except for the striking contrast between Paul's Jesus (never a harsh word) and the Gospel of John, I would suspect that early images of choleric saints (especially in apocryphal "Acts") were the source for the young Jesus. And there is certainly some carry-over from "Old Testament" destructive miracles.

There may be some evidence for culturally determined receptivity to the whole idea. Joseph Falaky Nagy's "Conversing With Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland" (1997) shows that the really dangerous Saint was so popular there that a famously mild one would be supplied in retellings with zealous disciples or pious animal companions, to properly afflict his enemies in his place!


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