Monday, January 23, 2006

"Bitter Withy" Revisited

Folks songs like The Bitter Withy provide circumstantial evidence that folk tradition in England had links to noncanonical stories about Jesus.

And not only in England.

Joe Offer has put online a folk belief about the willow tree -- "withy" means "willow" -- that still lingered in the Missouri Ozarks as recently as 100 years ago, recorded in Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society (H. M. Belden, editor, 1940/1955):
Jesus and Joses

The following, a folk-legend, not a song, seems to be related in spirit and by its curse upon the willow tree, tho not in the motivation of the story, to the ballad of The Bitter Withy -- for which see G. H. Gerould in PMIJA XXIII 141- 67 and Barry in JAFL XXVII 79-89. It was sent to me [i.e., H. M. Belden?] in 1914 by H. A. Chapman of the Missouri School of Mines at Rolla.

'I have known for some time that the mountain folk had a fear or prejudice against the willow tree; and some time back I heard an explanation that may be the reason. An old man who trapped south of Warrensburg (Johnson County) gave it to me [i.e., H. A. Chapman?].'

"When Jesus was a child he had a brother named Joses, who tho younger was much larger and stronger. Near where they lived were willows, and Joses would tell fibs about Jesus to Mary and then bring willow switches for her to punish him (Jesus) with (to be exact, he said 'God rot it'). And the willow always brings bad luck, rots quicker than any tree and if a child is punished with it he will have much suffering and will die before he is old."
This H. A. Chapman, who in 1911 reports the story heard from an old trapper, informs us that the old man whom he spoke with was somewhere south of Warrensburg, Missouri. Since Chapman mentions "mountain folk," who had a superstition about the willow tree, then he must consider this old trapper one of them, and the only mountain folk in Missouri are those of the Ozarks, then I infer that this trapper was an Ozark trapper of the upper Ozarks.

I note all of this because I also come from the Ozarks, but I knew nothing of this folk belief about willows nor of the story of Jesus and Joses. I'd be curious to learn if any of the old folks around Salem, Arkansas knew either of these -- or at least of The Bitter Withy.

An online search for the folktale about Jesus and Joses leads me only to material on Folklore at California State University, Fresno, which says the following about The Bitter Withy:
Belden sees a connection between this song and the folk legend "Jesus and Joses," in which Joses (Jesus's brother; cf. Mark 6:3) tattles on Jesus and Jesus is beaten with willow twigs. There is a fundamental difference, however: In "The Bitter Withy," Jesus is genuinely guilty; in "Jesus and Joses," he is said to be innocent.
The "Belden" here is obviously the same as the "H. M. Belden" above, and the CSU website helpfully adds: "cf. Belden, p. 102, "Jesus and Joses" (a legend he connects with this piece)." As the CSU site's bibliography page shows, this post was taken from the same book that Joe Offer was citing (and probably the same page, 102). So, this doesn't actually get us very far in tracking down the source of the Jesus-and-Joses story, but it does refer to the story as a "folk legend," as though this is well known.

My online friend Lee Edgar Tyler, one of the most helpful people whom I know, might be able to supply something about this folk belief since he's a folklore expert and loves camping and canoeing in the Ozarks.

Perhaps I'll ask him.


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