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The Story Behind the English Folk Song "Greensleeves"

A woman with green sleeves

Greensleeves: Overview

Frank Kidson once said, “The old English songs have frequent allusions to wearing the 'green gown', just, in the same manner, the Scotch ones speak of the loss of the snood or of the 'bonny broom'. 

Greensleeves is a musical composition with its roots in Tudor England, possessing elements of love and emotional declarations throughout. A perfect example of English folk music, it evokes the sensations of the renaissance and beautiful imagery of romantic fulfillment in its lyrics and music. 

There are many who share a vivid imagination and believe that Greensleeves was played on a lute in Medieval times, until the 18th century, when the popularity of the instrument began to wane. 

Greensleeves: Legendary Melody of Yore

The lute’s exact origin is hard to come by but it can be said without uncertainty that it’s closely associated with the Arab "oud." The name oud means ‘wood’ and was distinguishable for its wooden soundboards as opposed to those made of animal skin.

The thirteenth century saw the rise of the western lute and its differentiation from the oud. Notable among the very first depictions of the lute is the illustration of a musician playing at a chess game in the literary work Libro de Juegos or the Book of Games, which was commissioned by Alphonso Xin in 1283.

Legendary composers such as Francesco da Milano and John Dowland, played the lute to mesmerize and amaze their audiences with the profound depth in their compositions. 

The lute attained maximum prominence and fame in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So, we can imagine the lute having continued to entertain audiences through Greensleeves. It was during this period when notated music became the custom, as opposed to the fashion for improvisation, which was prevalent before. Greensleeves, being a song of yearning and unrequited desires, goes along well with the beautiful notes of the lute. 

Lute - musical instrument

This above is the string musical instrument, lute. 


The original composition of Greensleeves was 18 verses long and also appeared in a Medieval book, A Handful of Pleasant Delights, in 1584 in the form of A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves.

Greensleeves up to date has lasted for more than 400 years or even more in various literature and references. The fact that it is still utilized in media and popular modern works says a lot about its uniqueness. 

One of the first known references to a Greensleeves ballad is dated back on September, 1580. One of the most circulated and believed rumors about this old folk song is that it was written by English monarch Henry VIII after he was rejected by his eventual wife, Anne Boleyn, during the beginning of their courtship. The lyrics are wrought with a sense of romantic pathos and yearning for love. Even though the song is thought to have a royal association, the lute may have very well immortalized it over the centuries.

Another couple of versions followed in 1581 and 1584, Richard Jones printed a final version of the folk song. Jones’s version, which was 'A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves', is the one we listen to today.

The song in its lines refers to a Lady Greensleeves, and in the 16th-century era, the green color was interpreted to have a sexual connotation. It's been suggested that green was symbolic of promiscuity and that the lady in question was a prostitute.

In “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, William Shakespeare mentions this folk song twice where, in Act Two, we can see- "I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words, but they do no more adhere and keep place together than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of 'Green Sleeves'." Also, in Act Five, we behold- "Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of 'Green Sleeves.'”

Numerous recordings of the song have taken place over the 20th century by Jazz artists, most memorably for a commercial of a blanket company.  As decades turn into centuries, the popularity of this song will stay fresh and novel for generations to come.

Typical chord (harmonic) progression of lute traditional music and chord progression that was used for Greensleeves and What Child is This: If you think of the key of the song as minor key and use roman numeral system, the chord progression is going to be I minor - VII major - VI major - V major. With a number system, it's going to be 1 minor - 7 major - 6 major - 5 major. If you think of the key of this song as major key and use the roman numeral system, the chord progression is going to be VI minor - V major - IV major - III minor (or major). With a number system, it's going to be 6 minor - 5 major - 4 major - 3 minor (or major).




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