Babes In The Wood


Jon says, “I learnt this from Tim hart and Maddy Prior. Of all the songs I know this one is always nearest to the surface – i.e. if I’m humming something absent-mindedly, nine times out of ten it’ll be Babes in the Wood.” This is a well known tale and has been adapted for fairy stories,  pantomime and even film. According to Wiki here, the first publication was in 1595, but it’s probably  older.  I’m intrigued by the idea that there is a truth at its heart, although even in more forested times it stretches credulity.  I guess it also depends on the age of said babes, however. There’s a bit more on the myth here, with the suggestion that the story has its origins in Norfolk and is based on local history. Appropriately Mainly Norfolk has  the songs recordings covered and there are some interesting notes form Shirley Collins, which make reference to this being collected by the Copper Family. You can link to their site here.

You can buy the December digital album now from all good download stores.


21 Responses to “Babes In The Wood”

  1. Joe Offer says:

    We’ve had a lot of fun with this song at Mudcat over the years, but our information on the song isn’t particularly well-organized. Perhaps this “A Folk Song a Day” entry will motivate me to clean things up a bit. I’ll see what I can do later on. Start with this thread:
    …but be sure to follow the crosslinked threads listed at the top. Most of the sung versions don’t include the sordid story of the wicked uncle, and it’s a really juicy story.

    -Joe Offer, The Mudcat Cafe-

  2. muzza says:

    Nice version Jon………and thanks for the links you fellows…makes fascinating reading

  3. Phil says:

    I love this song (I’d only heard Shirley Collins’s version before). Yes, it’s sentimental, but not mawkish – just the right level of tear-jerking (and it is a very sad story).

    Surprised that Mr Boden hasn’t picked up on the name of the wood – anywhere near the smithy?

  4. Geoff says:

    Phil asks if the wood is anywhere near the smithy, according to Wikipedia it isn’t. The wood is in Norfolk while the smithy is on the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, close to where it crosses the Wiltshire border.

  5. Jane Ramsden says:

    It is a terribly sad story. I like to think, cruel though people might have been to children through the annals of history, that this story has stood out over centuries precisely because people were touched and appalled by it. How frequently employed and common is that phrase Babes in the Wood? I seem to have grown up with it as almost a symbol. Not gleaned from the pantomime, as I never liked them as a child and would never go. Hate Punch & Judy too, and all human puppets!

    So very evocatively sung, Jon. Can’t you find yersen a cheerier one to hum around the house though? Ha ha!

  6. Nick Passmore says:

    Has downloaded fine now (along with tomorrow’s..) Thanks, if you had a hand in sorting it..

  7. Pat Jones says:

    I’m surprised no-one has mentioned that this song is originally from The Copper Family Songbook. They have a great accapello version.

  8. Diana says:

    Another sad story sung so sorrowfully by Jon. There doesn’t seem to have been a cheerful song for quite some time.

    Hurry back Jane you have been sorely missed.

  9. muzza(S.E.England) says:

    I watched “Ade in Britain” on ITV today(thursday) and Ade Edmundson had the “Unthanks” as guests and would you believe they said that they only sing”Grim” songs…aaaarrrrgggghhh.

  10. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    A sad folk tale , but what wonderful chorus harmonies can be achieved in a crowded pub when it is sung at this time of year.
    Thank you for all the links which were fascinating.

  11. Jane Ramsden says:

    I’m even sadder now I know the little girl was under 3 and called Jane!

    This text is taken from an undated late 19th C copy of one of Randolph Caldecott’s picture books, published by George Routledge & Sons.

    “Now ponder well, you parents deare,
    These wordes which I shall write;
    A doleful story you shall heare,
    In time brought forth to light.

    A gentleman of good account
    In Norfolke dwelt of late,
    Who did in honour far surmount
    Most men of his estate.

    Sore sicke he was, and like to dye,
    No helpe his life could save;
    His wife by him as sicke did lye,
    And both possest one grave.

    No love between these two was lost,
    Each was to other kinde;
    In love they liv’d, in love they dyed,
    And left two babes behind:

    The one a fine and pretty boy,
    Not passing three yeares olde;
    The other a girl more young than he
    And fram’d in beautye’s molde.

    The father left his little son,
    As plainlye doth appeare,
    When he to perfect age should come
    Three hundred poundes a yeare.

    And to his little daughter, Jane
    Five hundred poundes in gold,
    To be paid downe on marriage-day,
    Which might not be controll’d:

    But if the children chanced to dye,
    Ere they to age should come,
    Their uncle should possesse their wealth;
    For so the wille did run.

    “Now, brother,” said the dying man,
    “Look to my children deare;
    Be good unto my boy and girl,
    No friendes else have they here:

    “To God and you I do commend
    My children deare this day;
    But little while be sure we have
    Within this world to staye.

    “You must be father and mother both,
    And uncle all in one;
    God knowes what will become of them,
    When I am dead and gone.”

    With that bespake their mother deare:
    “O brother kinde,” quoth shee,
    “You are the man must bring our babes
    To wealth or miserie:

    “And if you keep them carefully,
    Then God will you reward;
    But if you otherwise should deal,
    God will your deedes regard.”

    With lippes as cold as any stone,
    They kist the children small:
    “God bless you both, my children deare;”
    With that the teares did fall.

    These speeches then their brother spake
    To this sicke couple there:
    “The keeping of your little ones,
    Sweet sister, do not feare:

    “God never prosper me nor mine,
    Nor aught else that I have,
    If I do wrong your children deare,
    When you are layd in grave.”

    The parents being dead and gone,
    The children home he takes,
    And bringes them straite unto his house,
    Where much of them he makes.

    He had not kept these pretty babes
    A twelvemonth and a daye,
    But, for their wealth, he did devise
    To make them both awaye.

    He bargain’d with two ruffians strong,
    Which were of furious mood,
    That they should take the children young,
    And slaye them in a wood.

    He told his wife an artful tale,
    He would the children send
    To be brought up in faire London,
    With one that was his friend.

    Away then went those pretty babes,
    Rejoycing at that tide,
    Rejoycing with a merry minde,
    They should on cock-horse ride.

    They prate and prattle pleasantly
    As they rode on the waye,
    To those that should the butchers be,
    And work their lives’ decaye:

    So that the pretty speeche they had,
    Made murderers’ heart relent:
    And they that undertooke the deed,
    Full sore did now repent.

    Yet one of them, more hard of heart,
    Did vow to do his charge,
    Because the wretch, that hired him,
    Had paid him very large.

    The other would not agree thereto,
    So here they fell to strife;
    With one another they did fight,
    About the children’s life:

    And he that was of mildest mood,
    Did slaye the other there,
    Within an unfrequented wood,
    Where babes did quake for feare:

    He took the children by the hand,
    While teares stood in their eye,
    And bade them come and go with him,
    And look they did not crye:

    And two long miles he ledd them on,
    While they for food complaine:
    “Stay here,” quoth he, “I’ll bring ye bread,
    When I come back againe.”

    The prettye babes, with hand in hand,
    Went wandering up and downe;
    But never more they sawe the man
    Approaching from the town.

    Their prettye lippes with blackberries
    Were all besmear’d and dyed;
    And when they saw the darksome night,
    They sat them downe and cryed.

    Thus wandered these two prettye babes,
    Till death did end their grief;
    In one another’s armes they dyed,
    As babes wanting relief.

    No burial these prettye babes
    Of any man receives,
    Till Robin-redbreast painfully
    Did cover them with leaves.”

    The uncle was an utter swine….

  12. Muzza+395days (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    White Rabbits!
    @Jane lyrics above………..that tale has everything Love/sadness/evil/suspense/innocence/compassion and a tear-jerk finish. Can anybody suggest a tune that would go with Jane/Randolph Caldecott’s lyric.

  13. Diana says:

    Song still sad. Not that I expected there to be any change.

    @Muzza what about the pinch me bit.

  14. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    Happy December everybody…..and it has turned ‘all mild’ darn sarf’…..where have the dense fogs and frosty mornings of my childhood gone….mind you it was bloomin’ cold in the house in those days…no need for a fridge! The babes in the wood were deserted in Autumn (eating blackberries) so I suspect a cold night soon finished them off.
    See thursday channel 4 ‘secret lives of 6year olds'(you have missed 4&5year olds)for ‘awwww’ moments

  15. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Happy December everybody…..only a month of this year left!! PPFDOTM!
    Ref the father of the babes……he never thought that his brother would be so callous…..
    I’m having second thoughts about signing this ‘Power of attorney’ document as I overheard my children discussing new cars and world tour holidays……I ask yer!

  16. Old Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    I’m sitting here on this log….in this wood…..and it’s getting a bit chilly… daughter asked me where I kept my pension book and promised to be back….with a cheese sandwich………….later !

  17. Old Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Still waiting…..she’s bound to be back with that sandwich soon.

  18. OLD Muzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    I wonder if I should go looking for my daughter…..I think she might have forgotten which wood she left me in!

  19. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Ha….better say PPFDOTM to everybody as I got a rollicking from Daina one year as I forgot!…
    Happy December
    no wind darn sarf today….just watery sunshine…just the virus to worry about HEY HO!

  20. Linda says:

    Ready for the carols…..

  21. OldMuzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    Welcome December…only 22 days to the solstice and we are heading back to Spring….yup….ready for the carols
    la,La,la, me,me,me…ok -ready to go!

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