The Prickle-Holly Bush

One of the fascinating things about traditional folk music is the way that the songs evolve as they travel through time and geography. The Prickle-Holly Bush, also known as The Prickle-Eye Bush and The Maid Freed from the Gallows, is a prime example. Apparently it was known all over Europe in many different languages; over fifty versions have been collected in Finland, for instance.

A few days ago we heard a superb version of this song by Bellowhead. Today we have an earlier version, sung in unaccompanied harmony by Lal, Mike and Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy in 1981. The recording is entirely audio and the original is obviously a rather scratchy vinyl record, but the music is wonderful nonetheless. Here they are:

The lyrics aren’t always easy to follow, so here they are:

“Oh slack your horse”, cries George,
“Come slack it for a while,
for I think I see my father coming
over yonder stile”.

“Did you bring gold,
did you bring silver to set me free?
To keep my body from the cold gaol wall
and my neck from the high gallows tree?” 

“I’ve no gold,
I’ve no silver to set you free,
 but I have come for to see you hang,
oh, hang upon the high gallows tree”.

Oh, the prickle-holly bush, it pricks, it pricks,
oh it pricks my heart full sore,
and if ever I get out of the prickle-holly bush
I’ll never get in there any more.

(repeat for his mother and sister, then his sweetheart, who responds:)

“I’ve brought gold,
I’ve brought silver to set you free,
For I’ve not come for to see you hang,
oh, hang upon the high gallows tree”.

Oh, the prickle-holly bush, it pricks, it pricks,
oh it pricks my heart full sore,
And now that I’m out of the prickle-holly bush
I’ll never get in there any more.

(Thanks to Greer Gilman for the transcription, via the Mainly Norfolk page).

The Watersons were a wonderful family group from northern England who sang mainly unaccompanied traditional music, ‘tho Mike Waterson was also a gifted songwriter in his own right. The Wikipedia site gives a good summary of their career.

Information about the song is also easy to find on the Internet. Mudcat Café has several threads related to the different titles of the song (this is a good place to start), and this Wikipedia article is also worth reading.

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2 thoughts on “The Prickle-Holly Bush

  1. Lovely to hear the Watersons again – a big part of my formative years! And, looking through your archives, Narnia too!! A blog after my own heart. So glad I’ve found it!

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