The obvious meaning of our words has to do with what's usually called “a sense of place.” As a certain site builds up associations because of events that have happened there, the place itself becomes suffused with meaning. So the speaker says that he sees “a host of kind faces” looking down on him whenever the wind rustles the branches. First are his childhood friends, but they are just a memory. He often roves pensively in the lonely ash grove, at twilight or in the moonlight. Then he meets “the joy of my life,” and builds his home there, while blackbirds and bluebells add to the happy scene.
But why an ash grove, particularly? A song fragment floated into my head, performed by one of those folk-singery voices and accompanied by some kind of droning instrument: “Sing oak and ash and thorn/All on a midsummer's morn/Surely we sing of no little thing/In oak and ash and thorn.” Turns out my memory was pretty accurate: I was hearing the late folk singer Peter Bellamy with his group “The Young Tradition.” (No droning instruments, though, just the droning voices. Sorry! I can recognize the artistry of the performance without necessarily liking it.) Anyway, these three trees were supposedly tied in with the tree worship of the Druids, but . . . folks, I hate to burst your bubble here. We have no real evidence that the Druids actually existed. As discussed in my first post on this concert, many of our ideas about ancient Celtic culture comes from isolated fragments that were later stitched together into legends and myths during the Middle Ages and especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. As our friend Wikipedia says, “Many popular modern notions about Druids have no connection to the Druids of the Iron Age and are largely based on much later inventions or misconceptions.”
Well, you might say, we have this historic and folkloric poem about the significance of these three trees, so there's evidence for their use in ancient rites. Right? Um, no. The lyrics to the song were written by none other than Rudyard Kipling, in his book Puck of Pook's Hill, published in 1905, which is categorized as a work of historical fantasy. Each story is introduced by a poem, just like the stories in Kipling's The Jungle Book. (You may remember that we sang Roger Whitacre's “Seal Lullaby” in our Christmas concert, which sets to music one of the JB's poems.) While we do have one story from the Roman Pliny the Elder in the first century AD that describes the Gauls' worship of the oak tree and its accompanying mistletoe and uses the term “Druid” for the priests leading this worship, we don't really know where he got his information or who he's really referring to when he says “Gauls.” We do know that he never visited Britain itself.
But back to our actual song. I was surprised to see that our sheet music doesn't give credit to the lyricists. The original words were written by the 19th-century Welsh poet John Jones and translated (perhaps rather loosely) into English by Thomas Oliphant, a prolific composer and lyricist of the same time. The song was first published in 1862. There are legends about the sanctity of the ash tree, but, once again, we don't have any hard evidence of their validity. The wood of an ash tree is very hard and fine-grained, often being used for walking sticks, and the bark and leaves have been used for various medicines. Is it specifically associated with Wales? Not that I could discern. It is a very common tree, though, along with the oak, in the British Isles. Why Jones chose it for his lyrics is anybody's guess. Maybe he just liked the way they looked. Or maybe there was an ash grove near his boyhood home. Who knows? Whatever the reasoning behind the words, the song itself is beautiful, evocative, and enjoyable to sing.
Next week I'll totally switch gears and discuss why on earth we're singing the theme song from the James Bond film Goldfinger in a Celtic concert.