Folk and Traditional Song Lyrics:
Yew Tree

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The Yew Tree

The Yew Tree

 cho:     My bonnie yew tree
     Tell me what did you see

 A mile frae Pentcaitland, on the road to the sea
 Stands a yew tree a thousand years old
 And the old women swear by the grey o' their hair
 That it knows what the future will hold
 For the shadows of Scotland stand round it
 'Mid the kail and the corn and the kye
 All the hopes and the fears of a thousand long years
 Under the Lothian sky

 Did you look through the haze o' the lang summer days
 Tae the South and the far English border
 A' the bonnets o' steel on Flodden's far field
 Did they march by your side in good order
 Did you ask them the price o' their glory
 When you heard the great slaughter begin
 For the dust o' their bones would rise up from the stones
 To bring tears to the eyes o' the wind

 Not once did you speak for the poor and the weak
 When the moss-troopers lay in your shade
 To count out the plunder and hide frae the thunder
 And share out the spoils o' their raid
 But you saw the smiles o' the gentry
 And the laughter of lords at their gains
 When the poor hunt the poor across mountain and moor
 The rich man can keep them in chains

 Did you no' think tae tell when John Knox himsel'
 Preached under your branches sae black
 To the poor common folk who would lift up the yoke
 O' the bishops and priests frae their backs
 But you knew the bargain he sold them
 And freedom was only one part
 For the price o' their souls was a gospel sae cold
 It would freeze up the joy in their hearts

 And I thought as I stood and laid hands on your wood
 That it might be a kindness to fell you
 One kiss o' the axe and you're freed frae the racks
 O' the sad bloody tales that men tell you
 But a wee bird flew out from your branches
 And sang out as never before
 And the words o' the song were a thousand years long
 And to learn them's a long thousand more

 Last chorus:
 My bonnie yew tree
 Tell me what CAN you see

 This is how the Battlefield Band sing it on 'Home Ground' (great live

 [1879:] Nothing could be better evidence of how profoundly the mind of
 Scotland was moved by the evangel of Knox and his brother labourers than
 the sudden disappearance from oral tradition of many of the songs and
 ballads which had been popular for many years. There can be no doubt that
 many of these songs were what would now be considered highly licentious,
 although among our rude and plain-speaking forefathers and foremothers
 they may have passed current without evoking a blush on the face of village
 maidens. The Reformation called for an alteration in morals as well as in
 doctrines, and these songs were not only discouraged, but a poetic
 reformer issued a volume of "Gude and Godly Ballats", in which new and
 pious words were adapted to the old airs. In poetic merit this collection is
 wretched [...]. Still, they helped to supplant the old songs and ballads [...].
 We hear no more of the "Ring sangs" [ballads] after the Reformation,
 though it is not impossible that they may have been continued in obscure
 places for some time, especially in quarters where the fervour of the
 Reformation hardly reached. [...] The struggle for the supremacy of
 Presbyterianism in Scotland [...] lasted long, and it was [...] no
 against France in 1511] placed James [IV of Scotland] in a dilemma from
 which there was no escape; his obligations under the Auld Alliance of
 1491-2 and the Anglo-Scottish peace of 1502, renewed in 1509, were
 mutually incompatible except when England and France were at peace.
 [James tried to keep out of the conflict but] Henry, who meant to shine on
 the battlefields of Europe, had been definitely preparing for war against his
 brother-in-law. [...] It was only on 24 July [1513] that James summoned the
 shire levies. [Earl marshal] Surrey had begun to mobilize in London as
 early as 21 July; [...] his arrangements for organizing the north had been so
 good that he 'took his field' north of Newcastle on 5 September.
 James, meanwhile [...] had occupied a fortified camp on Flodden Edge
 [where Surrey,] on 9 September, came down upon the Scots from the north.
 They, perhaps fearing that Surrey was off to invade Scotland, perhaps
 believing that, since he had not come by noon as he had promised, he
 would n
 magnificence) designed a splendid funeral. This did not take place. The
 royal corpse lay in its lead at Sheen until the house was despoiled after the
 Reformation, and eventually the embalmed head was hacked off by Queen
 Elizabeth's master-glazier who used it as a sort of pot-pourri until he tired
 of it. All praise must be given to the English who fought a hard action after
 a long march in bad weather, but James does not deserve the blame which
 tradition has accorded to him. Not he, but Henry, was responsible for the
 war, and one reason why he was ill prepared was that he strove to keep the
 peace till the very last. His conduct of the campaign was not faulty. [...]
 His defeat in battle was primarily due to the fact that his ill-organized
 force, numerically not much greater than that of his enemy, was not
 adequate for its task. The 'Lilt of dule and wae' was heard all over
 Scotland; but Scotland remained proud of a gallant King. [...] Disastrous as
 it was, the defeat at Flodden did not affect the
 churches were built on the site of a pagan yew-grove. The Yew in this song
 stands near the village of Ormiston, in East Lothian, by the 13th century
 ruins of the Church of St. Giles. Brian was told about this magnificent tree
 by an old man in the neighbouring village of Pentcaitland. He went to see it
 and felt the whole place 'humming with ghosts'. It is not surprising that such
 an old and majestic tree has a place in the people's memory. The
 Covenanters preached under its boughs and it seems likely that the young
 John Knox (born and bred in nearby Haddington) honed his stern fiery
 message beneath ist leaves. One commentator in the late 19th century said
 "The Yew at Ormiston could tell strange tales, if only we could hear".
 (Battlefield Band Songbook 123)

 [1994:] This song practically wrote itself. I was there, I saw the bird that
 flew out from its branches and so on, and the song wrote itself. (Brian
 McNeill, pr. comm.)

 [1997:] A campaign has begun to restore the historical standing of John
 French galley-slave and fell under the influence of John Calvin in Geneva
 [...]. He returned to Scotland in 1560 and became the driving force behind
 the Scottish Reformation, the most radical in Europe. Apart from his
 rejection of papacy and its hierarchy, he led a drive for universal literacy.
 He wanted a school in every parish, a college in every town and a
 university in every city. He also wanted regular, organised provision for
 the poor. Post-war Scotland, secular and hedonistic, where the pubs are
 open all day on Sunday, has largely forgotten him. [Some historians think]
 Knox's historical standing had been traduced by the extremism of the
 militant Protestantism that followed. (Arnold Kemp / Dean Nelson,
 Observer 5 Apr)

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