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 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.
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.
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.Steinberg follows this citation of the Roberts letter with a scholarly resource supplied:
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.
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:Ed must have missed this link in my blogpost. At any rate, he then added a brief bibliography on The Bitter Withy:
Hymns and Carols
"The *Bitter Withy*" and Its Relationship to "The Holy Well"Fascinating stuff. If any readers know more, please let us know.
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*
Modern Language Notes, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan., 1913) , pp. 1-5
*Folk Songs as Socio-Historical Documents*
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