Hunting the wren

This page contains Hidden Sections.
Use the SHOW and HIDE buttons.
Artist: Steeleye Span – Key: D
Purpose
Purpose

This famous old Irish folk song was often used as the last number of a set because it contains a toast and a plea.

In mediaeval Europe, musicians often travelled about in bands, sometimes walking, or with horses and wagons. On arriving at a new town or village, they stopped in the town square or market-place, took out their instruments and began to play and sing, the women often dancing. A crowd soon gathered, and when the musicians decided to finish, they would sing a song like this.

The toast – Eyes to the blind, legs to the lame, pluck to the poor, bones to the dog – is an expression of goodwill to all present. Then comes the plea – The wren, the wren, the king of all birds ... – is just riddling nonsense to arouse curiosity; it is the last line that counts: We beg you good people to GIVE US A TREAT!

What the musicians wanted was somewhere to stay and a good meal. The local inn-keeper would likely be present and very willing to accommodate them, since their presence would guarantee nightly visits by the townsfolk to join in the music and dancing.

History
History
The story on which the song is based concerns the "chattering" wren betraying St Stephen to his enemies. Thereafter the wren was also to be hunted down and stoned to death, as was St Stephen. In Ireland it is an annual festivity going back hundreds of years that is still celebrated today. Musicians go from door to door, entering private and public houses as they "hunt the wren", announcing themselves with the song and entertaining the gathering in exchange for food, drink and perhaps money.
See here for more about the song's history.
Difficulties
Difficulties

The chords are easy, it's short and simple, but it's surprizingly difficult to perform well.

It's in the traditional Call and response format: one verse asks a question and the next answers it, so two groups of singers are needed.

However, it bounces along at a fast lick, and there's no time to take a breath within a verse: the WHOLE VERSE must be sung with a SINGLE BREATH. Try it, and you'll understand the first challenge.

Second, the notes are "widely spaced" – technically, they have large intervals between them. Unless you're a practised singer, you'll miss the notes by just enough to sound amateurish and awful.

This is one reason why I chose it: it presents two very useful challenges that need some work to get right. Let's see how to go about it.

Tempo and Rhythm
Tempo and Rhythm

It's in 6/8 time, so we SHOULD count

ONE two three FOUR five six ONE two three …

.. but it's too quick. Best just to count

ONE . . TWO . . ONE . . TWO …

To beat time, use your fingers on a table-top and tap

LEFT . . RIGHT . . LEFT . . RIGHT …

.. as for counting, then put in a "skip beat"

LEFT . left RIGHT . right LEFT . left RIGHT . right LEFT

Key and Chords
Key and Chords

First up, the recording is NOT in concert pitch but in a key somewhere between B and C. This is quite common for traditional musicians, who often tune their instruments as they please, sometimes to suit an old instrument that doesn't use modern tuning.

I used electronics to transpose the recording by +2.5 semitones into the key of D. This is why it sounds a bit tinny and funny, but at least you can play along with it.

The original is here:

Hunting the wren in the original key.

The chords of D and G are two of the most critical on the guitar, so please see the Guitar Fingering page to make sure you're playing them correctly:

How to practise
How to practise

As you can see, for a song that seems to be very simple, there's a lot to it. This means that it's very good for practice since you'll learn things that can be used for other songs.

The first and MOST IMPORTANT thing is to start by playing and singing it V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y.

Just start by strumming your guitar or ukulele in the simple pattern above:

      ONE  .  .   TWO  .  . ONE . . TWO
We're hunting the wren says Robin a'bobbin'

.. and so on.

I'll show you this at the Meetup, but for now I'll introduce another idea that you'll also find very useful in future.

Let's talk about Concentration, Meditation and Contemplation. A song can only be used for meditation when you know it well. At first you must concentrate on both enunciation - how you speak the words - and pitch - the note you are singing. This is much easier TO DO than to explain. Successful performers actually use a powerful meditative technique, although they wouldn't explain it that way.

As I said, much easier to do than it sounds, and you'll quickly get the idea. Have fun!

Steeleye Span
website.
Hunting the wren
live in concert
This page contains Hidden Sections.
Use the SHOW and HIDE buttons.