The Fanciful History of Greensleeves

Greensleeves was all my joy,
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
and who but Lady Greensleeves

“Greensleeves” is a 400-year-old tune you may know as “What Child Is This?” Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” a marvelous piece made all the more so by starting with this melody.

Many people tell fanciful stories about the origin of this song. Was it written by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn, who “cast [him] off discourteously” without losing her head for the moment? Was it an old Irish song, as we all know every good song is? Was it first sung by dog-headed men surrounded by rats? The rumors abound. The Early Music Muse drills into this musical history and reveals the truth, as is so often the case, rather boring. In short, a musician wrote a hit tune that many people used for their own songs, and everyone loved it–they still do. It’s the feature song in the K-drama I just blogged about, Mr. Sunshine. While Savina & Drones have a good composition based on Greensleeves, what Vaughan Williams did with it can’t be outdone for sublimity.

One thought on “The Fanciful History of Greensleeves”

  1. Years ago, in some book or other, I discovered an old fairy tale called “Greensleeves.” I read it eagerly, expecting the story behind the song, but it had nothing to do with the song. Greensleeves was the name of a sort of an ogre character. I consider Greensleeves perhaps the most beautiful melody in the world — it’s a close run with Londonderry Air (Danny Boy). Which also has a legendary origin story. According the the old folks, a harpist fell asleep on a fairy mound one night and heard the song being sung inside. He went home and played it on his own instrument.

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