Author Topic: Interpreting "Green Grow the Rushes Oh!"


Posted - 30 Mar 03 - 06:43 pm

Those who have not seen them may be interested in the notes provided by Lucy Broadwood in English County Song to "Green Grow the Rushes O", (otherwise known as "The Twelve Apostles".) I hope I have the formatting sorted in a way that is legible.

The words of this version, which are known at Eton, are here reprinted from Camp Choruses, E.C.R.V." The plan is exactly the same as that of the Dorsetshire version, except that the practice of singing it in two parts seems to have been discarded. The tune is a little more elaborate, since the same words are not always sung to the same part of the tune, e.g., in the example, "Four are the Gospel makers," on its first appearance, is chanted on what may be called the "reciting note" and afterwards when it follows " five' &c., to the final phrase.

1. I'LL sing you one, oh!
Green grow the rushes, oh!
One and one is all alone,
And evermore shall be so

2 Two, two for the lilywhite boys
Clothed all in green, oh!

3 Three, three for the rivals.

4 Four for the Gospel makers.

5 Five for the symbol at your door.

6 Six for the six proud walkers.

7 Seven for the seven stars in the sky.

8 Eight for the eight bold rainers (or rangers).

9 Nine for the nine bright shiners.

10 Ten for the ten commandments.

11 Eleven for the eleven that went up to heaven.

12 Twelve for the twelve apostles.

To treat exhaustively of the history of this song would be beyond the scope of the present book, but it is to be hoped that it will some day receive proper attention from those who are competent to discuss it. It must suffice in this place to say that in different forms it occurs in very many ancient and modern languages, from Hebrew downwards. Its purport seems to have been always a more or less theological one. The reader who is interested in the song may be referred to the following authorities:- Villemarque, Barsas Breiz, Lejean, in Revue Celtique, vol. ii., 44 ff.; Sandys' Carols. An interesting series of articles appeared in Longman's Magazine for 1889, in the course of which suggestions were made as to the meaning of some of the sentences, by Dr. Jessopp and Mr. Andrew Lang. Several English versions have appeared from time to time in Notes and Queries, as for instance, in Series 4, vol. ii., p. 599; Series 4, vol. iii., p. 90 (Norfolk); Series 6, vol. i., p. 481; Series 6, vol. ii., p. 255, &c. In course of centuries, many of the sentences have degenerated into a mere meaningless jingle, from which, however, it is not impossible to reconstruct the probable original. At the Reformation, many of the more recondite allusions would naturally be forgotten, but certain numbers are identical in all Christian versions, and even in the Hebrew version, Nos. 1 and 10 have the same meaning as in the others.

1. - With the exception of some trifling varieties of reading, as " lies all alone," or " is left alone," all versions agree in the couplet, which quite certainly refers to God Almighty.

2. - In the Hebrew, the tables of the law represent this number, and in version dated 1625, it is interpreted of the two testaments. The reading, in a Cornish sailors' version, "lilywhite maids," dates from a period when the word was not confined to one sex. The allusion is undoubtedly to Christ and St. John the Baptist, but what the meaning of " clothed all in green" may be cannot be guessed. The Scotch version, "the lily and the rose, That shine baith red and green," is curious; it is in the form given in R. Chambers' Popular Rhymes of Scotland.

3. - The curious readings of all the known versions may be divided into two families: "thrivers," "drivers," "divers,"
" the rivals," " rhymers," and " wisers," on the one hand, and on the other" rare 0's," "rear ho!" and "arrows." It is difficult to see in any of these a corruption of any words which would bear out the interpretation almost universally given for this number, i.e., the Persons of the Trinity ; an ingenious conjecture has been received, to the effect that the first of the two groups may stand for " thridings," or " thirdings," the word from which the Yorkshire "Riding" is derived. If the interpretation suggested by Mr. Laurence Whalley be correct, and the number refers to the Wise Men from the East, the first group of readings must be taken as corruptions for "wisers," which actually occurs in one version. This is confirmed by the reading "strangers," in a Cornish sailors' version.

4. - All Christian versions agree in the reading " Gospel makers," " writers," or " preachers." The Hebrew version of Nos. 3 and 4 gives the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) for No. 3, and their wives (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel) for No. 4. The curious reading "cancelled," given in Notes and Queries, Series 6, vol. ii, p. 255, may indicate " Evangelists.'

5. - With several different combinations, the commonest readings are: " the symbol at your door," "at your feel,"
or "at your call;" "the simple (i.e. sinew) in my bone," "the thimble in the bowl," "tumblers on a board," and the Scotch " hymnlers o' my bower," all of which point to one original. It is difficult to resist hazarding the guess that the first of these is actually correct, and refers to the sign of the pentacle, or pentagram, the five-pointed figure drawn with one line and very commonly inscribed on the threshold to keep away the evil one. In Goethe's Faust, there is an allusion to this sign as the "Drudenfuss," or " Pentagramma," which prevents Mephistopheles from crossing the threshold. The reading of the Dorsetshire version, " flamboys all in a row," or "under the brow." may possibly be a very corrupt version of the same. But " the ferrymen in the boat," given in a Cornish version, whether or not followed by the words " and one of them a stranger," can hardly be referred to the same origin. Mr. Lang interprets the number of the five wounds of Christ, but it is difficult to see how this solution is arrived at. " Nimble fingers " is almost certainly a late restoration of an imaginary original.

6. - In the case of this number the solution is fairly certain, though the readings differ widely. " Bold," " cheerful," " proud," or "charming," "waiters," "waters," or "walkers," are the most common, and there can be little doubt that the reference is to the six water-pots used in tile miracle of Cana of Galilee. " Bowls," " Pots," or " Jars," of " Water," and " Charmed Water" are two different originals which amply account for the readings given above. Mr. Lang sees an allusion here to the " Tearful Mater," or the "Mater Dolorosa," but why under the number six? The guesses, "ages of the world," "days of labour," and "Seraphim with six wings," are of less authority, while the curious provokers," "virtuous horses," and "lamps were burning bright," given in the three Notes and Queries versions, must be left in their obscurity.

7. - The " seven stars in the sky " are of course the group in Ursa Major, called Charles's Wain. The versions are almost all in agreement here, but the "seven liberal arts " appear in the 1625 version, "days of the week " in the Hebrew, and "works of mercy" in Notes and Queries, Series 6, vol. ii., 255. It is only wonderful that a number of such varied symbolism as this should not have suggested more varieties of reading.

8. - "Bold rainers," or " rangers," "bright shiners." "archangels," and the very odd "brown striped walkers," plainly refer to angels, though the number is not very suggestive. Why the number of archangels should have been doubled, it is not easy to see. The 1625 version has a reference to the number of persons saved in the ark, the Hebrew refers it to the days preceding circumcision, and one or two versions have " Gospel blessings," referring to the Beatitudes.

9. - "Bright shiners," and "gable rangers" are the commonest readings, but these are almost as often found for
eight as for nine' With regard to the latter, Dr. Jessopp's ingenious guess that the "Angel Gabriel" was referred to here is confirmed by the Dorsetshire version given above, under eight. Two of the Notes and Queries versions give "tentmakers," and " kings of Lunnery" for this number, and the third reads, with that of 1625, "maiden Muses." Mr. Lang follows the Hebrew version in interpreting it of the months preceding birth. A Cornish version gives " the moonlight bright and clear."

10. - All versions agree in this reading.

11. - The readings are almost all in agreement, and the reference is undoubtedly to the apostles without Judas Iscariot. The "eleven stars" seen by Joseph provide the Hebrew version with an interpretation for this number, and the eleven thousand virgins appear in one of the French versions. The Scotch version has "eleven maidens in a dance,' and a Berkshire version gives " Belsher's (i.e., Belshazzar's) horses."

12. - Here again all versions agree, except of course the Hebrew, which gives the tribes of Israel, as might be

The Somersetshire version given in Notes and Queries, Series 4, vol. ii., 599, &c., is deliberately made into nonsense for the sake of rhyming with the names of the numbers. The editors will be grateful for any version not hitherto recorded: or for suggestions as to the interpretation of the more corrupt readings.

Edited By dmcg - 31/03/2003 08:57:19

Pip Freeman

Posted - 03 Apr 03 - 09:27 am

Thank you Dave, that was most interesting. I have often wondered about the different versions of this.

Pip Freeman

Posted - 04 Apr 03 - 09:30 am

A bit topical, but seeing the rain otside, I remembered we used to say ---- Eight for the April Rainers.

Phil Taylor

Posted - 06 Apr 03 - 02:35 pm

April Rainers is what I remember too - it must be a Shropshire variant.

Pip Freeman

Posted - 07 Apr 03 - 09:11 am

Phil, I remember singing it round a campfire at Condover.


Posted - 15 Dec 07 - 11:01 am

(Here is the first version from "English County Songs":


(1st Voice) Come, I will sing to you
(2nd voice) What will you sing to me?
(1st voice) I will sing you one oh!
(2nd voice) What may be your one oh?
(1st voice) One is one and all alone, and ever more shall be so.

(1st Voice) Come, I will sing to you
(2nd voice) What will you sing to me?
(1st voice) I will sing you two oh!
(2nd voice) What may be your two oh?
(1st voice) Two of them are lilywhite babes, Cloth-ed all in green oh!!
(Both) One is one and all alone, and ever more shall be so.

(1st Voice) Come, I will sing to you
(2nd voice) What will you sing to me?
(1st voice) I will sing you three oh!
(2nd voice) What may be your three  oh?
(1st voice) TThree of them are thrivers
(Both) Two of them are lilywhite babes, Cloth-ed all in green oh!!
One is one and all alone, and ever more shall be so.

[These three verses indicate the plan of the song, each new number being followed by the whole of those that have gone before, sung by both voices.  The other numbers are as follows :-]

Four are the Gospel preachers

Five are the flamboys all in a row

Six are the six bold waiters

Seven are the seven stars in the sky

Eight are the Gabriel angels

Nine and nine of the brightest shine

Ten are the ten command-e-ments

Eleven and eleven went up to heaven

Twelve are the twelve apostles.


Broadwood, L, 1893, English County Songs, London, Leadenhall Press

Lucy Broadwood wrote:

For the later numbers, only the two notes D and E are given.  It is suggested that these should be accompanied by the the two different harmonies given under numbers 3 and 4.  Before discussing the various versions of the words and their interpretations  (see the discussion thread), it will be well to give a of words and music that is traditional in King's College, Cambridge (see related songs). A variant of the same music is given by a correspondent in The Musical Herald for October, 1891, and said to have been sung by a Scotchman.  In the letter a "minor tune" is referred to as belonging to a Norfolk version.  The may not impossibly be identical with the Dorsetshire version given above.



Posted - 15 Dec 07 - 12:56 pm

There is an interesting article entitled "Before the Folk Song Society: Lucy Broadwood and English Folk Song, 1884-97" in the current issue of the Folk Music Journal (volume 9, Number 3, 2008)  [Yes, I know they use an interesting dating convention!].  The article contains a substantial section on "English County Songs" as you would expect, and in particular in contains  comments which I have abridged here:

Moving on to the south-west, we find Dorset represented by two items:  ..... and an interesting cumulative song, "The Twelve Apostles".  The Dorset version of the latter, collected by the Revd W. Miles. Barnes, has a simple tune but some of the words - such as 'Three of them are thrivers' and 'Five are the flamboys all in a row' are rather puzzling.  Broadwood also printed a variant titled 'Green Grow the Rushes, Oh" which she had found in an Eton College songbook ....  It is evident that she was intriged by the symbolism in this song, and she probably already suspected that it had some connection with Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism.  She would subsequently spend a great deal of time and energy trying to solve the enigma, returning to the problem in 1907 and again in 1916117

117 VMWL, Broadwood MSS, LEB 3/71-144.

The whole article is worth reading!


Posted - 31 Dec 07 - 03:00 pm

I have added two other versions sent to me by Jeff:


(This has a different structure to most versions; up to the eight verse has the normal form:)


Eight it is the Morning break, When all the world's awake, O
Seven, the seven stars  in the sky,
Six the Gospel Preacher,
Five, the Ferryman in the boat,
Four the four Evangalists,
Three of them were strangers,
Two of them were lily-white babes, cothed all in green, O
One of them was all alone, Ever will remain so.


Verse 9 (very much slower)

Nine, it is the Dilly Bird, That's never seen but heard 0,
(No continuation)

Ten, the ten Commandments, And ten begins a-gain O (Fine.)

Ralph Dunstan wrote:

The mythical Dilly Bird is supposed to come only at Christmas and was 'never seen but heard-o'. Variants of the Dilly Carol are sung in most of the countries of Europe.  The following is exactly as I have many times heard it - generally sung by three singers at or about the time of Twelfth Night - in West Cornwall ... As in most of the Mediaeval Miracle Plays and Mysteries, and many of the old Carols, Christian Doctrines are mingled with fragments of Heathen Mythology etc.

The origin of 'dilly' is uncertain, but is presumably Cornish and related to the Welsh dilys which nowadays means "genuine, authentic." 



(Last verse only given here; see other versions for the pattern of the song)


O, I'll sing you twelve, O.
What is your twelve, O?
Twelve for the twelve apostles,
Eleven for the eleven that went to heaven,
Ten for the ten commander's men
Nine, the nine bright shiners,
Eight the Gabriel strangers
Seven for the seven stars in the sky,
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols in my path
Four for the gospel preachers
Three, three the rivo.
Two, two, the lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O.
When the one is left alone
He evermore shall be so.

Palmer R and Davies, G, Let Us Be Merry. pub Green Branch

This version was collected from Mr George Lane by Percy Grainger in 1908.




jeff also wrote:

Of course, the original meanings of the verses can be debated indefinitely, and of course I can't resist having my say for what it's worth:

  • Most people seem to agree that the Lily-white boys are Jesus and John the Baptist, although some say they are Gemini.  Lily-white for purity, of course, but usually in folksong green is the colour of sexuality. Perhaps here it goes back to a more original symbolism of rebirth and renewal. The Scottish version given by Broadwood "the lily and the rose that shine both red and green" is, I should think, symbolic of sexual and spiritual love.
  • To me, the most plausible explanation of v3 is the "rivals" and similar words were originally "riders" and refers to the three kings.  Equally, they would have been "strangers" from a distant land.
  • The Seven Stars could be either the Plough, as Broadwood believed, or the Pleiades, which was a significant constellation for ancient farmers.
  • The eight April Rainers might be the eight-starred (the number is matter of opinion) constellation Hyades in Taurud which rises about that time of year and has been associated with rain since BC
  • The eight Gabriel Strangers in "The Lily-white boys" could mean the archangels -if so someone has made a mistake as traditionally there are only seven.
  • The nine Bright Shiners sounds like another constellation, although no-one has suggested one.  I prefer the nine shining choirs of angels from traditional Christian myth.

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