Written on the 10th of April 2014

After boring you guys with my Jethro Tull posts, I want to do something slightly different this time. Instead of writing about one or several albums from the same band, I’ll write about a song, in this case one I’ve known since I was a very young kid. I’m not planning to do this often at all, but after listening to a few different versions of Greensleves (and having liked all of them), I got curious about the song and decided to do some quick research. Yes, I basically mean Wikipedia (not only that, I promise. But almost). By the way, I just started an internship so I probably won’t write so often.

Greensleves is a traditional English folk song (hooray, English folk! For those who like it, check out Fairport Convention), from, apparently, the 16th century, over a ground either of a romanesca or of its slight variant, the pasamezzo antico. It has been found in several late 16th century and 17th century sources, and it is thought to have been composed by Henry VIII for his lover and future queen consort Anne Boleyn, who refused to be his mistress and asked him to divorce his wife.  Henry VIII loved music, had several instruments as well as a nice voice, composed many songs (by the way, Jethro Tull covered his song Pastime With Good Company)… apparently he got obsessed with Anne Boleyn and composed this song.

However, the song is based on an Italian style of composition (as I mentioned, romanesca) that was unknown in England at the time Henry VIII lived, so it’s more likely to be from the time of Queen Elizabeth I. It was certainly well known in the beginning of the 17th century, as it’s mentioned in a shakesperean play.

There is more than one possible interpretation of the lyrics. The first one says that Lady Green Sleeves was a promiscuous young woman, maybe even a prostitute. Not the kind of thing I would think of after listening to, let’s say, Loreena McKennitt’s version (the link is coming soon!). Apparently, the word “green” had sexual connotations at the time: “a green gown” was a reference to the grass stains that could sometimes be seen on a woman’s dress after engaging in sexual intercourse out of doors.

The lyrics could mean the total opposite though. What if maybe people assumed wrongly that she was sexually promiscuous because of her costume? Her rejection of the singer’s advances rather support this theory. Anyway, I won’t lie, I don’t care that much about the interpretations, although it’s funny that the two of them are totally opposite.

Alas, my love, you do me wrong

To cast me off discourteously.

For I have loved you well and long,

Delighting in your company.


Greensleeves was all my joy

Greensleeves was my delight,

Greensleeves was my heart of gold,

And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you’ve broken, like my heart,

Oh, why did you so enrapture me?

Now I remain in a world apart

But my heart remains in captivity.


I have been ready at your hand,

To grant whatever you would crave,

I have both wagered life and land,

Your love and good-will for to have.


If you intend thus to disdain,

It does the more enrapture me,

And even so, I still remain

A lover in captivity.


My men were clothed all in green,

And they did ever wait on thee;

All this was gallant to be seen,

And yet thou wouldst not love me.


Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,

but still thou hadst it readily.

Thy music still to play and sing;

And yet thou wouldst not love me.


Well, I will pray to God on high,

that thou my constancy mayst see,

And that yet once before I die,

Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.


Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,

To God I pray to prosper thee,

For I am still thy lover true,

Come once again and love me.


So, links, links. Countless artists have covered this song, so there’s plenty of Greensleves, have some. The first three ones (and the Cohen one) are the ones I knew before writing this post. The others, well I just came across them. Happy to know Jordi Savall covered this song, he’s a genius, I’ll write about him at some point. Oh, and about Loreena’s version, apparently it was a totally spontaneous thing and wasn’t going to be included in any album, but it was too beautiful…

Leonard Cohen did his own version, with altered lyrics and an additional verse, calling it Leaving Green Sleeves. The song is on his 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony.

I’ll try to write a better post next time. I think I’ll write about a Spanish band called Rare Folk, you should check them out, extremely original stuff!


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