Everything Old Is New Again


Romanesca Orchestra Holland, with from left to right, Eric Bergsma, Femke Wolthuis, Willem Wolthuis, Tim Nobel, and Don Hofstee. February 2010 photo by Femke Wolthuis. Romanesca is a European folk music style with roots in the 16th century, and was the origin of songs like “Greensleeves”.

In Western culture, even people who don’t recognize the name of the song “Greensleeves” usually recognize the tune. For some it may have another name, but for people brought up in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon system such as that in the United States, the song “Greensleeves” is ingrained. Not bad for a tune that dates back at least 500 years. Music theorists can argue about what gives the song its staying power, but everyone else accepts it as indelible because it is simply beautiful and yet evocative and melancholy in a way they can’t quite put their finger on.

In the 1962 film How the West Was Won, Debbie Reynolds sings “A Home in the Meadow”, to the tune of “Greensleeves”, adapted by the great film composer Alfred Newman, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Gregory Peck plays Reynolds’s wayward romantic interest.

No wonder songwriters over the years have pinched the melody for their own tunes, with perhaps the most famous example being the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?”, written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. “What Child Is This?” borrows its power from the simplicity of “Greensleeves”, and a Christian listener does not need to recall the history of the original lyrics to “Greensleeves” and how they may relate less holy concerns than the lyrics of the Christmas carol. Christmas itself is a custom largely borrowed from pagan beginnings, and overlaid with a thick veneer of Christian rituals and symbols, but what does that matter really to the ordinary worshiper? It’s like jazz in how riffs and digressions can build up over an underlying kernel of something old and familiar, making it new again, and even if the original is barely recognizable, it is nonetheless there, providing a touchstone.

“What Child Is This?” performed by Naomi and Wynonna Judd for their 1987 album Christmas Time with the Judds.

A person goes to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and hears the uplifting carol “What Child Is This?” and has one thing or several in mind about it, but all about the perceived divinity of a humble baby and the overwhelming sense of mission He embodies already at a tender age. The ultimate origin of the tune in an old folk song about lovers matters not at all. That’s something for scholars to run rings around. The main point is how the tune has appealed to such a basic need in people that it has lasted centuries and been co-opted by tunesmiths and the lyrics rewritten numerous times. Who can put their finger on it? Songwriters everywhere want to know, since they could be certain then what always appeals as aesthetic pleasures known in the human heart and mind, and would predictably be able to strike gold both in fortune and art time and again, rather than stumbling upon one or the other blindly, and rarely if ever both together.
— Vita