The title “Greensleeves” is is probably familiar to anyone that has thumbed through a beginner’s music book, or to fans of holiday music. It has had numerous titles throughout the years, and to residents of the United States it is best known as “What Child is This”. Read on to learn about the origin of this classic song.
The earliest record of Greensleeves’ publication is found in a broadsheet ballad from England under the title “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves” in 1580. Within a year, several other versions were published, with titles like “Ye Ladie Greene Sleeves answere to Donkyn hir frende”, and “A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves. To the new tune of Green Sleeves.” For perspective, Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, published in 1602, included a wry reference to the song. Given the rapid publication of numerous versions, “Greensleeves” was likely very popular well before it was put to paper.
The popularity of Greensleeves continued for centuries, especially in England. In 1865 William Chatterton Dix, after a near-death experience and subsequent turn to religion and faith, wrote a series of poems, one of which was titled “The Manger Throne”, which would later be set to the tune of “Greensleeves”. “What Child is This” was then published in 1871 in the collection Christmas Carols Old and New by editors John Stainer and Henry Ramsden Bramley. In the 20th century, countless musicians began to perform and record the piece, which gave way to its prominence in the United States. Have listen to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s classic recording for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” below:
For a more extensive look at “Greensleeves” history, have a look at Early Music Muse’s excellent essay here. Would you like to learn to play your own rendition of “Greensleeves” for the holidays? Contact Thompson Tutoring for music lessons today!