Tuesday, December 26, 2023

To Hunt the Wren

The Wife and kids will occasionally catch me enthusiastically singing a quite eccentric song, To Hunt the Wren.

It seems to tickle their funny bone as it's quite a bit different from my usual soul/jazz/blues/hip-hop fare but, well, there's a story there...

To Hunt the Wren is an old English folk song that is typically sung on Boxing Day as it commemorates a tradition where townsfolk would gather in the morning around Christmas to go hunting the titular wren - wrens being those cute (and tasty) little birdies.

The lyrics, as I recall, are:

Where are you going?
To hunt the wren
This Christmas morning calls for hunting them
How will you kill him?
With sticks and stones
Hatchets and cleavers honoring his bones
And so forth.... The bloodthirsty quotient quite accentuated by repetition

Anyway... people who attended my boarding school might well recall choirmaster's Alan Vening's arrangement that the whole school would spend a entire term practicing, I believe we had a school-wide Christmas performance; To Hunt the Wren was a big feature during my time there.

I guess it was a combination of the striking lyrics and the inspired arrangement that caused the song to be so firmly imprinted in my mind.

(Or perhaps it was the savagery of those English tribes that the song laid bare)

The felicitous way the tongue curls around "Hatchets and cleavers" is satisfying in its own sweet, merry way. In it, we can hear the deep origins of Maxim guns and future paeans to Rule Britannia.

The verve of the call of response too was fitting and had some swing to it. You wouldn't guess how often the "How will you kill him? / With sticks and stones" refrain is heard in our household, thirty odd years later.

Still the kids are quite blasé about the troubling lyrics - I suspect early exposure to such things fortifies the soul readying them for this neo-feudal world of organized gleeful violence visited on a (mostly) defenseless wren.

The imbalance of power. Peace starts at home.

To Hunt the Wren does have a certain incongruity in its imagery. For one the fascination and flair it finds in the act of killing. This is plainly a hands-on affair albeit with sticks and stones.

And then there is the fact that it is a single wren that is being hunted by the gathered crowd. Communal catharsis, perhaps, in the ceremony of blood. Is this a kind of Sussex scapegoating at work? Stonehenge atavism? Middle England savagery? Who knows?

The hunt of the wren does takes place after all on Christmas morning just days after the winter solstice. A celebration of harvests to come, the depths of these dark times, the light ever increasing going forward. I suppose you can deconstruct further meanings from the tune.

The web being what it is, you can hear the song for yourself. Sadly the online versions will never approach the melodious peaks that stay in my memory. The lyrics and arrangements are quite suspect, says this expert. Trust me, you'll have to come my way to hear the real thing

I notice that Natalie Merchant sings a version in her latest album!

These takes are far more mournful than what I grew up with. Interesting an Olde English sense, but they don't quite spark joy in the same way. Where is the joy, I ask?

So imagine, if you will, me crooning the peaceful coda on this Boxing Day morning
Yay and so amen
Yay and requiem

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Writing log: December 26, 2023

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