Bushes and Briars: A Brief Raving Folk History

Songs are some­times immor­tal trav­el­lers, and if you fol­low their tracks, you end up in all kinds of places. Reg­u­lar read­ers will know I have a weak spot for folk bal­lads, and their his­tory and vari­ous inter­pret­a­tions are fas­cin­at­ing to track. Bushes and Bri­ars came onto my path from dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions, but I’ll get to that later.

The old­est men­tions of the bal­lad that I could find are from nine­teenth cen­tury broad­sides such as this one.

It’s a clas­sic love bal­lad, in the sense that it explores some of the troubles and uncer­tain­ties of love and rela­tion­ships. The woman in the song doesn’t trust men, and the last line sug­gests she’s driven to sui­cide because of it. Within the con­text of Brit­ish bal­lads as a whole, that is under­stand­able, as many of them are about men prey­ing on (and mur­der­ing) women.

In 1904, the song was col­lec­ted and rearranged by Eng­lish com­poser Ralph Vaughan Wil­li­ams, and from there on it entered into the rep­er­toire of many choir and solo sing­ers.