The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast


#160 / Dec. 23 Podcast

In our country, we often know it as “What Child Is This?” based on a Christmas verse written more than a century and a half ago. But, of course, the tune “Greensleeves” is even more deeply enshrined in our common human experience.

One of the oldest melodies we know, the song originally it wasn’t religious in nature at all. On the contrary, its earlier lyrics told the story of a painful romantic conundrum (with some, uh, subtly salacious references).

Popular legend even attributes the song to King Henry VIII, who was said to have written it for the ill-fated Anne Boleyn.

Or Not

That association, though, is wrong, says author Lisa Colton in her book Angel Song: Medieval English Music in History. Actually, Colton finds “Greensleeves” originated a generation later, during the reign of Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

At any rate, the melody is well over four centuries old and is, even now, still going strong. First published in 1580, the tune was used for a wide variety of 16th and 17th century broadside ballads.

In fact, so well known was “Greensleeves” by the time of William Shakespeare that he could refer to it by name three times in his play, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” each time with a bit of a wink and a nod.

Losing Those Love’s Labors

That’s because the song’s original lyrics dealt with a spurned lover who accused one “Lady Greensleeves” of casting him off "discourteously," after he had done no less than (1) paid for her lodgings and bought her (2) a petticoat, (3) a pearl-bedecked gown and (4) a jeweled necklace.

And more. A scandalous twist is implied in the title. But to understand the naughty bits, we need to know that in Elizabeth’s day, the color green often hinted at promiscuity, suggesting images of a woman getting grass stains on her dress from a frolic or two in the woods.

The Christmas Connection

It was another century or so before this ancient, beautiful melody started being connected with the holidays.

By the 1680s the tune had definitely started getting “churched,” but it took another 200 years for British hymn writer William Chatterton Dix to come along and, in 1865, write "What Child Is This?" undoubtedly our own time’s most popular “Greensleeves” re-envisioning.

Ever since then, the song has clung to its religious and holiday veneer. It never really seems to get very old, does it?

Click here to enjoy our 2022 Christmas gift, with Vanessa, Dan and Sam soloing on “Greensleeves.”

Oh, and if you’d like to hear a vocal treatment, check out Floodster Emerita Michelle Hoge’s rendition of “What Child Is This?” in our Christmas playlist. Here’s a direct link to our “La Flood Navidad” Christmas show.

Meanwhile, have a joyful Christmas, dear friends. Here’s to comfort and joy all around!

The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Each week The 1937 Flood, West Virginia's most eclectic string band, offers a free tune from a recent rehearsal, show or jam session. Music styles range from blues and jazz to folk, hokum, ballad and old-time. All the podcasts, dating back to 2008, are archived on our website; you and use the archive for free at: