As performed by The Pentangle, on their “Solomon’s Seal,” Reprise, 1972, John Renbourn (g+), Bert Jansch (g+), Jacqui McShee (v), Terry Cox (perc.), Danny Thompson (b).

[Note: This is a cross-post on both my music and law blogs, with minor changes mutatis mutandis.]

Where sometimes we despair of justice, our culture can provide a magical solution. In my law and literature course we consider supernatural rescue in the work of the French writer Marcel Aymé. His story “Dermuche,” for example, concerns a poor simpleton who murders some pensioners for a recording he covets. On death row he exhibits an obsession for “the baby Jesus” (who to his mind conveniently dislikes pensioners), and on Christmas eve he transmogrifies into an infant himself. The authorities guillotine him anyway on Christmas day – only for his lawyer to discover that the pensioners are back among the living. Everyone except, perhaps, the state is redeemed, never mind that the pensioners suddenly can’t find that recording they used to play every Sunday lunchtime. (Read my translation of this unusual Christmas story here.)

Then, too, we look at Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers, tracing the history of the magical golem as a champion of justice for persecuted Jews, and at traditional British ballads – “The Twa Sisters,” in which the darker, jealous sister drowns the fairer and looks to get away with it until travelling minstrels visit the court with a harp they have made out of the corpse. The harp sings out the details of the crime as the murderer and her family listen. Then again, in “Bruton Town,” brothers murder their sister’s suitor: he is a servant and supposedly beneath her. The suitor’s ghost visits the girl in a dream, to report the crime.

As the winter holidays approach, I have been thinking about another instance of justice as magic, in a lovely traditional carol, an antidote to the commercial pap we’re subjected to each December. Over the years, “The Cherry Tree Carol” (a.k.a. “Child 54,” for its appearance in the second volume of Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads) has enjoyed popular attention, although you don’t hear it these days. Said to have originated in medieval “mysteries,” and based on an apocryphal account of the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy, it has featured on recordings past by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, PPM (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Shirley Collins… . But my personal favourite is this Pentangle version.* (The performances are all on YouTube. As at least token solidarity with the musicians and their copyright, I don’t provide links. Oh, as it’s the holidays, go on then: In fact, another law-and-literature element about this song has lately occurred to me, larger than the magic justice element, or at least more immediately resonant in our times: it gives another archetypal dimension to Mary by making her a disbelieved woman at trial.

Like most modern versions, the Pentangle performance more or less condenses that printed in 1852 in William Sandys’ carol collection. As Child points out, it’s not surprising that this version should be anglicized such that Mary wants a cherry instead of a fig (or a Clementine?). The folk culture adapts material to context. (Other popular versions feature an apple, but the apocrypha give a palm tree.) Apparently heavy with child, she asks Joseph to pluck her a fruit, only to be rebuked, “Let him pluck thee a cherry that brought thee with child.” In the folk tradition, the depiction of Joseph is not without compassion, at least by inference: understandably, he’s an evidence-based guy, a not unreasonable man: even Galileans can be from Missouri. The line resonates as an undertone, a drone note, to the ballad, empathic but also accusatory of Joseph as much as of Mary. He has convicted Mary without a trial. It’s a sort of victim-blaming, if at the most rarified level, and with a more reasonable excuse than we find often in legal history.

In any event, then comes justice as magic: “Oh then bespoke the babe within his mother’s womb:/ Bow down the tallest tree and give my mother some.” And so the defence rests, with a cherry on top.

Of course at this time of light festivals we find that same justice-as-magic element in the Chanukah story: the candle oil miraculously burns for eight days so that the Jews can restore the Temple after a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Greco-Syrians. The light glows even at the solstice. The justice aspect in the carol suggests cultural evolution in itself (which is why I call the treatment of Joseph folk empathy). In the Pseudo-Matthew, Joseph doesn’t use Mary’s craving as an occasion for bitter sarcasm. Rather, he snaps, “The tree’s too high. Anyway, you should be more worried about finding water.”

The evolutionary element should give us hope during this season of light in the dark (all the darker this year, in “light” of socio-political developments in the U.S. and Europe) – that while perfect justice might exceed our grasp in this material world, it is within our reach if only we keep the faith. At least that’s what I tell my students.

I of course have chosen the date for the winter solstice, when we are charged with making the light. As to the performance, while McShee’s singing is folkie-purist almost to a fault, Renbourn and Jansch on guitar deliver appropriately lutelike accompaniment, with a pinch of spice from Cox and Thompson at the battery. The result is the group’s characteristic warm-and-winning “folk-baroque” sound, which is particularly suited to this carol.

* The Pentangle also have produced very nice recordings of “The Twa Sisters” and “Bruton Town” (sure enough, available on YouTube). ). For more detail on justice as magic, see my The Structures of Law and Literature: Duty, Justice, and Evil in the Cultural Imagination.


One thought on “December 21 – Day 357 – The Cherry Tree Carol

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