Bitter Withy, The

DESCRIPTION: Jesus is sent out by Mary to play. He is snubbed by a group of rich boys. He builds "a bridge with the beams of the sun," and the boys who follow him across fall into the river and drown. Mary beats her child with a withy branch
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1888 (Rickert-AncientEnglishChristmasCarols)
KEYWORDS: Jesus poverty punishment religious discrimination
FOUND IN: Britain(England(West)) US(Ap)
REFERENCES (14 citations):
Leach-TheBalladBook, pp. 689-690, "The Bitter Withy" (1 text)
Leach-HeritageBookOfBallads, pp. 125-126, "The Bitter Withy" (1 text)
Leather-FolkLoreOfHerefordshire, pp. 181-184, "The Bitter Withy; or The Sally Twigs" (2 texts, the first perhaps mixed with "The Holy Well," 4 tunes)
Karpeles-TheCrystalSpring 104, "The Bitter Withy" (1 text, 1 tune)
Palmer-FolkSongsCollectedBy-Ralph-VaughanWilliams, #44, "The Bitter Withy" (1 text, 1 tune)
Wells-TheBalladTree, pp. 188-189, "The Bitter Withy" (1 text, 1 tune)
Rickert-AncientEnglishChristmasCarols, pp. 86-87, "The Bitter Withy" (1 text)
Burton/Manning-EastTennesseeStateCollectionVol1, pp. 96-97, "Bitter WIthee" (1 text, 1 tune, possibly learned from a pop folk recordng)
Friedman-Viking/PenguinBookOfFolkBallads, p. 60, "The Bitter Withy" (1 text, 1 tune)
Grigson-PenguinBookOfBallads 5, "The Bitter Withy" (1 text)
Hodgart-FaberBookOfBallads, p. 152, "The Bitter Withy" (1 text)
Morgan-MedievalBallads-ChivalryRomanceAndEverydayLife, pp. 123-124, "The Bitter Withy" (1 text)
cf. Belden-BalladsSongsCollectedByMissourFolkloreSociety, p. 102, "Jesus and Joses" (a legend he connects with this piece)

Roud #452
cf. "The Holy Well" (plot)
NOTES [291 words]: It should perhaps be noted that this event has no place in the Bible, nor even in the (known) apocryphal gospels (though it reminds one of various events in the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas," which also contains some rather nasty miracles; Leather-FolkLoreOfHerefordshire also mentions this obscure and vicious piece). Among his other acts, when the son of Annas the Scribe takes a withy branch and scatters the water in a puddle Jesus had made, Jesus causes the boy to drop dead (Montague Rhodes James, The Apocryphal New Testament, Oxford, 1924 (references are to the edition of 1972 of the corrected edition of 1953), p. 50).
The bridge of sunbeams is a commonplace in religious art.
Rickert-AncientEnglishChristmasCarols and others see this as an evolved version of "The Holy Well." If they are actually related, however, I would suspect the evolution of going the other way; the usual tendency of corruptions in religious pieces is for them to make God and Jesus look better, not worse.
Belden sees a connection between this song and the folk legend "Jesus and Joses," in which Joses (Jesus's brother; cf. Mark 6:3) tattles on Jesus and Jesus is beaten with willow twigs. There is a fundamental difference, however: In "The Bitter Withy," Jesus is genuinely guilty; in "Jesus and Joses," he is said to be innocent.
David C. Fowler, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad, Duke University Press, 1968, p. 51, connects this with a piece he calls "Childhood of Jesus," a medieval English poem; for more on it, see the notes to "The Cherry-Tree Carol" [Child 54].
According to Leather, the local title "The Sally Twigs" came about because, in Hereford, a willow wand is called a "sally twig." The phrase is not used in either text she prints.- RBW
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File: L689

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