Greensleeves on the Dulcimer: Carols for All Seasons

I look forward to the holiday season each December, especially the music. Christmas carols have been a part of my holiday tradition for as long as I can remember. Carols are melodic and joyful–even the sad ones–and it is difficult to pick a favorite carol. One is “What Child is This?” which is set to the melody of Greensleeves, an old English carol. This minor song sounds beautiful when played on the mountain dulcimer.Carol and Candles and Nutcrackers - IMG_6498

Earlier this month, the “Gator Gals” worked on a program of Christmas music to present at the Pride Library’s “Birthday Celebration” of their new location. It was hard to narrow the Christmas carols and contemporary music to a manageable list because, “I like them all.” The carols especially bring back memories of growing up–singing and caroling through the streets of our small Virginia community in the cold and snow. Not this year in Louisiana! It was 80 degrees on Christmas Day.Gator Girls - IMG_6460

What are Christmas Carols?

I  became interested in the origin of Christmas carols and I found two references on my bookshelf which gave background information. The Oxford Book of Carols, written in 1928, is an extensive collection of carols from England and other parts of the world. The book was written as an effort to document the old, medieval carols which were quickly becoming lost as well as to include newer, more modern carols. The Book of Christmas Carols, gives a much simpler explanation of Christmas carols.Books of Carols - 2 - IMG_6571_1Both references described carols as joyous music with verses and a refrain (chorus). The Oxford Book of Carols states that “Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular and modern. They are generally spontaneous and direct in expression.” Carols describe the emotions and feelings of people being experienced at the time. Here are other highlights from the books:

  • Carols derive from the French term word  for “carole” or the older Latin “carula” meaning a circle dance. The music probably was court music and eventually filtered to the common folk. An example is the carol, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabelle”, from the Provence region of France. This originally was not a Christmas song but dance music for the French court. The carol was published in 1533 and is notated in 3/8 time.
  • Dances were performed in churches. The friers could dance to the music in church as long as their feet touched the ground. Eventually the dance element was lost, the music continued.
  • Carols in England are documented as early as the 1400’s. It is possible that carols came to England by way of the friers. Carols were a popular form of music in medieval England and the golden age of carols is from circa 1350 to 1550 including the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547) who wrote “Green Groweth the Holly”. Some of the our well-known carols date back to the middle ages such as, “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Good King Wenceslas”.
  • Although we generally associate carols with Christmas music, carols originally extended well beyond this holiday to the entire year. They were performed as music at Easter, May Day, the Winter Solstice, at harvest or any festival throughout the year. “Now Is the Month of May” and “My Dancing Day” are favorites.
  • There was a period of time when carols in England became more sectarian and associated with merriment and feasting such as “Boar’s Head Carol,” “Wassail Song” and “Gloucestershire Wassail.” Groups of people would go through the streets singing or “wassailing” and accompanied by drinking aie.
  • During the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans in England from 1647 to 1660 carols were suppressed as being too joyous to be sung in churches.
  • Carols began to flourish again during the Victorian era (1837-1901) where several books of carols were published. Carols were printed on broadsides (a paper printed on only one side–often a poster) and these were accessible to the public. English folk music collectors, such as Cecil Sharp, took efforts to reach out and document these old carols probably saving them from extinction.
  • Although carols were written for any occasion, they usually contain a religious element or wording such as, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” They may include several languages such as English, French and Latin.
  • Since carols were dance music, they were frequently written in 6/8 time or 3/4 waltz time. Examples are “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” “I Saw Three Ships,” and “The First Noel.”

This is an abridged history of carols; I found it facinating. I always wondered why so many of the traditional Christmas songs were in 6/8 time–now I know that they originated as dance music. And although carols are primarily sung at Christmas, they continue throughout the year so I can enjoy them all year long.

Greensleeves or “What Child is This?”

Greensleeves is an old English folk song dating from 1580 when a broadside was published with this melody and lyrics. Since this time there have been are any number of lyrics associated with the tune. The Oxford Book of Carols includes lyrics with the Greensleeves music about the coming of the New Year: “The Old year now, away has fled….”.

The carol, “What Child is This?,” is a poem  written by William Chatterlan Dix in 1865.  It was published as a song set to Greensleeves six years later in 1871 when it was featured in Christmas Carols Old and New, a hymnal edited by Henry Bramley and John Stainer. It became and continues to be a popular Christmas carol.              .

Mountain Dulcimer in DAC tuning

Greensleeves is a beautiful song and is played in a minor key–either Aeolian or Dorian mode, depending on the melody variation. For this song, I tuned my mountain dulcimer to DAC and the song is played in the D minor key. It is easy to re-tune a mountain dulcimer from the popular DAD tuning–just lower the melody string one pitch from a “D” note to a “C” note.

Helen Bankston and I played and recorded “Greensleeves” as a duet. Helen used her bowed dulcimer (which didn’t need retuning as it is chromatic) to bring out the beautiful melody and I have a mountain dulcimer for playing chords and harmony.

My dulcimer was build by David McKinney, a luthier in Arkansas. It is unique because there are no sound holes on the top of the dulcimer.McKinney Dulcimer - 5 - IMG_6515The dulcimer has a resonator back (or double bottom) and the sound holes are on the bottom of the dulcimer. This projects the sound outward rather than up towards you so the player has a better idea of the sound that the audience hears.McKinney Dulcimer - 4 - IMG_6510The walnut dulcimer built by skilled luthier, David McKinney, has an ebony overlay on the fretboard and a shorter fretboard length making it easy to finger. It has a has a beautiful tone and is a pleasure to play. It is a very quiet dulcimer and I find it works well for duets and fingerpicked songs.

You Tube 

Here are Helen Bankston and I playing the song, “Greensleeves.”. Enjoy on You Tube.


The Oxford Book of Carols,  P. Dearmer, R. V. Williams, and M. Shaw, ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. 1964.

The Book of Christmas Carols. Quintet Publishing Ltd. Quantum Publishing, London. 1985

Christmas Carol. Wikipedia.  //

Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella. Wikipedia. //,_Jeanette,_Isabella

The History of Christmas Carols. ©2015 James Cooper

What Child is This. Wikipedia. //

Greensleeves. Wikipedia. //

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