Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather

About “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” (5 contributors, 5 notes, 7 comments)

 

→“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” (Roud 423, Child 313) is a traditional English folk ballad. Like many traditional songs, the lyrics are unattributed. Child transcribed twenty verses, and a twenty-first got added later (and is included here for some unknown reason—I keep writing to the Lyricsplainer mods to get someone to delete it or include it as a separate entry, but nobody responds, and all they’ve done is put brackets around it. Sometimes I hate this site.) Most modern recordings pick and choose verses and include far fewer than the full twenty. There are several variant titles, and the characters’ names shift through the various broadsides and folk and rock versions.– BonnieLass67 (11 upvotes)

→The song has also been passed down as “Fair Ellen,” “Ellen and William,” and “Sweet William’s Heart.” There’s a distant cousin in the ballad “Robin Hood and the Waking Wood,” which changes William to Robin Hood and gives him a revenge arc; that one has always struck me as a derivative corruption, though it wasn’t the first to steal someone else’s narrative and give it to Robin Hood. –BonnieLass67 (7 upvotes)

 

→It was documented in John and Alan Lomax’s 1934 book American Ballads and Folk Songs as “While Oaken Sisters Watched,” with a number of changes and Americanizations. In modern times, the ballad (or its variants) has been recorded or played live by artists as varied as Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, the Kingston Trio, Windhollow Faire, Dolly Parton, Jack White, and Metallica. The verses each chose, and the order they chose to sing them, change the meaning of the song. –BonnieLass67 (6 upvotes)

>Have you heard the abomination that was on Idol? Some finalist butchered it as “Where Broken Hearts Do Gather.”  –HolyGreil

>If we don’t speak of that I can pretend it doesn’t exist. –BonnieLass67

→This song, included among the famous ballads documented by Francis James Child, is an allegorical tale of a tryst between two lovers and its aftermath. –Dynamum (2 upvotes, 1 downvote)

>That’s awfully reductive, and I’m not sure what allegory you’re seeing. There’s a murder and a hanging and something monstrous in the woods. Sets it apart from the average lovers’ tryst.  –BarrowBoy

>Fine. I just thought somebody should summarize it here a little, since “about the song” means more than just how many verses it has. Most people come here to discuss how to interpret a song, not where to find it in the Child Ballads’ table of contents.  –Dynamum

 

→Dr. Mark Rydell’s 2002 article “A Forensic Analysis of ‘Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather’”, published in Folklore, explored the major differences and commonalities and their implications. In The Rose and the Briar, Wendy Lesser writes about how if a trad song leaves gaps in its story, it’s because the audience was expected to know what information filled those gaps. The audience that knew this song is gone, and took the gap information with them. Rydell attempted to fill in the blanks.  –HolyGreil (1 upvote)

>I’ve found my people! That’s the first time somebody has ever beaten me to mentioning Rydell’s work in a conversation before. I got a state grant this year to make a documentary about him and his work and his disappearance. It’s going to be called Looking for Love in All the Lost Places. I named it after his blog. Have you read his blog? It’s a deeper dive into the stuff in his article. More personal, in the way an academic article isn’t supposed to be.  –HenryMartyn

>No, only the article. Didn’t know he disappeared either. I’ll check it out! –HolyGreil

>@HenryMartyn it’s been two years since your last post on this tune. I keep hoping to get news about your documentary. –HolyGreil

 

Listen to the Kingston Trio: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Joan Baez: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Windhollow Faire: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Steeleye Span: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to the Grateful Dead: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Metallica: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Moby K. Dick: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Jack White: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to the Decemberists: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Cyrus Matheson: “Where Broken Hearts Do Gather” [FLAGGED by BonnieLass67][UNFLAGGED by LyricSplainer ModeratorBot]

Full Lyrics for “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” (traditional) (7 contributors, 95 notes, 68 comments, 19 reactions)

(see disambiguation for other versions)

(see related songs)

 

One1 autumn2,3 as the wind blew cold

and stripped red leaves4 from branches

Fair5 Ellen6 ran to meet her love

Where oaken hearts do gather7,8

 

1 Some versions begin “In autumn…” One early broadside notably began with “each autumn.” –BonnieLass67

2 Like the more famous “Barbara Allen,” this ballad begins by setting the season. In “Barbara Allen,” of course, the season is spring, the season of new love. –HolyGreil

3 “Barbara Allen’s” “merry month of May/when green buds all were swelling” is also echoed in the 1880 hit “The Fountain in the Park,” also known as “While Strolling in the Park”: “I was strolling in the park one day/in the merry merry month of May/I was taken by surprise by a pair of roguish eyes/in a moment my poor heart was stole away.” I wouldn’t mention that except for the literal heart getting stolen away Temple-of-Doom-style in this song. –Dynamum

4 trees that have red leaves in autumn include black cherry, flowering dogwood, hornbeam, sourwood, red oak, white oak, winged sumac, sweet gum, and red maple. it’s reasonable to assume this is referring to red or white oak trees given the title. –HangThaDJ

>White and red oak aren’t native to Britain.BarrowBoy

> What if it was originally “rowan hearts” not oaken hearts?  Rowan berries could leave a red carpet, plus there’s all that great mythology around rowan trees.Dynamum

>A) there’s no record of a rowan version (check me if I’m wrong, @BonnieLass67, you seem to be the version expert) B) rowan leaves turn more yellow than red, C) the line says red leaves, not berries. –BarrowBoy

5 It’s interesting that the woman in the song is referred to in almost all versions as “fair,” despite her actions. –Rhiannononymous

> She could just be fair as in blond? Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

6 Alternate versions feature the usual gang of “Maggie,” “Polly,” “Molly,” “Jenny,” and “Peggy,” etc. as seen in countless other songs, and also “Elswyth,” which I haven’t seen in other ballads. I’ve looked to see if there’s a version of the song with willow trees, given the derivation of that name, but haven’t found one. –BonnieLass67

7 the woods, presumably. –HangThaDJ

8 In his 2002 paper, “A Forensic Analysis of ‘Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather’,” and subsequently in his blog, the University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Mark Rydell attempted to track down the exact provenance of the ballad. He said that not every ballad can be traced to a specific incident or location, but this one had a couple of markers that made him think it was possible. He pointed out that of the two common British species, English oak tree leaves turn coppery brown, not red, in autumn, and sessile oak leaves turn yellow. While it’s true that the song doesn’t specifically say the red leaves are from oaks, it’s the only tree mentioned specifically, and it’s right in the oldest known name of the song, so presumably it means oak trees when it says oak trees. North American oaks might more specifically meet the red leaf missive, Rydell pointed out. In that case, the song would have had to make its way to British lore from America, when songs moved more commonly in the other direction, or else somebody would have to have brought North American trees to Britain early enough that they’d be mature for this song. (Why mature? Nobody pictures skinny little saplings when they’re talking about oak trees. And there’s a “gnarled and knotted ancient” in a later verse.) In his initial research, Rydell attempted unsuccessfully to locate a village with a bridge and a steep embankment and a stand of imported oak trees somewhere nearby. Later, after consultation with a botanist, Rydell came to understand that American oaks planted in Britain don’t necessarily have the same bright color there that they have in their native country; anthocyanin, the main red pigment, needs bright, crisp autumn days to kick into high gear. It just isn’t the same in overcast, damp climates. He concluded that he would not be able to use tree species alone to trace the ballad, but he still had other clues to pursue. –HenryMartyn

–BonnieLass67 marked this as cool stuff–

Sweet William robbed the butcher’s son9,10,11,12

He turned her heart to fancy

And bade her meet him ‘neath the13,14 bridge15,16

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

9 This line sets William up as a robber, thus deserving of his fate, and the next line makes you think that Ellen is as fair and innocent as the first stanza implies. –Rhiannononymous

10  The Kingston Trio’s version changes this to “Sweet William WAS the butcher’s son/ WHO turned her heart to fancy.” –BonnieLass67

11 Sweet William was supporters’ nickname for Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, known as Butcher Cumberland to his Tory enemies! He died relatively young, with no children. Possible link?  –Dynamum

–BonnieLass67 marked this as a stretch–

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

> There’s absolutely nothing to connect this with Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. You’re barking up the wrong oak tree.BarrowBoy

12 Dr. Mark Rydell, in attempting to pinpoint the origin of the song, posited a theory that the line should actually read “Sweet William, Robert Butcher’s son.” –HenryMartyn

> there was a robert butcher born in liverpool who became an australian politician! he had three sons and five daughters, but he was probably born too late to be referenced in this ballad.HangThaDJ

> Yeah, Rydell dismissed him. There’s nothing connecting this song’s path with Australia. It didn’t need to be a famous Robert Butcher, just one who was locally famous enough to be worth putting in the song, so Rydell tried looking for any Robert Butcher whose son named William might have died under unusual circumstances. Rydell found what he was looking for: an aging solicitor named Robert Butcher, living in a village called Gall, had written a strangely passionate pro-hanging letter in the 1770s, right around the time that its prohibition became a popular cause, saying “there are circumstances for which, tragically, hanging is the only proportionate response.” Not “crimes” but “circumstances.” Rydell said in his blog that he was going to England to check Gall out for himself. He made one more post from something called an internet café–this was pre-smartphone, so I guess that was the only place he could get online?–anyway, one more short update and then he never posted again. (Did I mention I’m making a documentary about him? I’m planning on visiting Gall this October. I’ve got an appointment lined up with the woman who runs their town historical society too. Hopefully I can get some answers.)  –HenryMartyn

> What a fascinating story! Your documentary should be really interesting. –HolyGreil

>You should check out Rydell’s blog Looking For Love in All the Lost Places too–it’s like a folksier, less academic version of his research. You can still find it on the wayback machine even though he and his host site are both long gone. –HenryMartyn

> did this robt butcher have a son who was hanged? what was he hanged for? –HangThaDJ

>I’ve messaged with the town historian, like I said, Jenny Kirk. She said Butcher’s letter is in their museum. She warned me that it’s just a one-room museum-and-gift-shop, because nothing much ever happened there, but because of that, its publication in London was one of the bigger things that happened to anyone from Gall. He had four sons, one of whom was named William. His William did die by hanging, but there’s no mention anywhere of a crime or a trial. I can see why Rydell thought this was a good lead. –HenryMartyn

>Did you ask her if Rydell ever got there? HolyGreil

>First thing I asked! She said that would’ve been back when she was a kid, and they don’t keep a visitor log. HenryMartyn

>i always think of historical society ladies as old biddies. HangThaDJ

>Can confirm she is definitely not an old biddy. HenryMartyn

13 Variously, “the bridge,” and “Toll Bridge,” in the British versions. “Tall Bridge” in one early American version, “Fall’s Bridge” in Dolly Parton’s. Unclear whether “Fall’s Bridge” means a bridge belonging to someone named Falls, or a more poetic version involving autumn. –BonnieLass67

14 If it’s a toll bridge, maybe the toll is what William pays in the end. –Rhiannononymous

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

15 The fact that William asked her to meet him under the bridge goes well with the robber line, since we’re told he’s sweet but then immediately told that he’s both a robber and someone who would lure a young woman under a bridge. Maybe it’s an ironic sweet, like an ugly mobster called Prettyboy or something.  –Rhiannononymous

16 Guys! I’m here! In Gall! It has almost everything mentioned in the song: a village, a woods, a stone bridge with a steep embankment. No red carpet of leaves, even though it’s October, but everything else seems to check out.   –HenryMartyn

–HolyGreil marked this as cool stuff–

“Don’t go,” said Ellen’s sisters two17,18,19,20

“There’s no good that can follow

A man met moonlit ‘neath the bridge21

Where oaken hearts do gather”22

 

17 the sisters function as a sort of greek chorus here. –HangThaDJ

–BonnieLass67 marked this as a stretch–

18 Ellen and her sisters represent the three Fates. –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

19 I’ve always thought the sisters were just sisters, trying to warn Ellen, like a good sister would. There are lots of songs where family tries to warn a woman that her man is no good. –Rhiannononymous

20 It’s worth noting again that the American version documented by the Lomaxes was “While Oaken Sisters Watched.” –BonnieLass67

21 Okay, but if you take the whole verse as the warning, “There’s no good that can follow a man met moonlit ‘neath the bridge,” it can either be a warning telling Ellen not to go because there’s danger for her, or it could be a warning that there’s going to be trouble for him, in which case they might also be saying Ellen herself is no good for William. They seem to know an awful lot about this very specific thing – not just that no good can follow meeting a man at night under a bridge, but also specifically meeting a man at night under that particular bridge, where oaken hearts do gather. –Rhiannononymous

> Or oaken sisters watchBonnieLass67

22 The quotation marks are obviously not part of the song as passed down orally, but they’re in all the sheet music and broadsides I’ve ever seen. In this stanza the chorus really does sound like it’s part of a quote from the sisters, like they know this place by its reputation. –BonnieLass67

Fair Ellen turned her eyes from them

For she had long decided23

To meet him while the village slept24,25

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

23 This plays like you would expect in this kind of song. Young woman rejects advice from her wise elders and chooses love, and then discovers too late that her family was right and she’s set herself up for tragedy. This ballad later twists that expectation. (Though that leads to the question of why her sisters don’t want this, if they don’t mean the usual ‘it will lead you astray.’) –Rhiannononymous

24 I used to think this meant that the village itself slept where oaken hearts do gather.  –Dynamum

>That’s just stupid. –BarrowBoy

>Hey! I said ‘used to.’ And anyway, there were trees there before people, probably, so technically I’m right either way. –Dynamum 

25 The village that Rydell located, Gall, was adjacent to a small, dense woodland that would have been larger back then. The main road went north/south, with south heading through the woods and over an old stone bridge. –HenryMartyn

>I’m here now! Bus took ages. Gall was bypassed by the major motorways, so the village is pretty isolated. But that means the woods are still woods! It’s a bit of a walk to the bridge, and very dark at night, but doable. I’ll admit I was hoping there’d be graffiti carved into the bridge saying “William was here” or “El and Will” or something. HenryMartyn

Fair Ellen’s steps did lightly fall

On autumn’s red-stained blanket26,27,28

As off she ran to meet her love29

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

26 Could be blood! –Dynamum

27 This brings us around to what was previewed at the beginning– there the leaves were being stripped by autumn wind, here they’re already on the ground, but she’s off to meet her guy. –Rhiannononymous

28 Hear me out: if you go with the “in autumn” opening variant that the Dead used instead of “one autumn,” this is something that happens every year. The leaves turn red, and off sweet Ellen goes again. That would explain the different-but-repeated nature of the opening and this stanza. That’s what always happens; what happens to William specifically is what happens this time. –HolyGreil

–HenryMartyn marked this as cool stuff–

29 Her light steps and “her love” here tell us that from the narrator’s perspective she is in love and has no intent to deceive. That makes what happens all the more surprising to the listener. –Rhiannononymous

Young William stood in moonlight’s glow

When Ellen came30 upon him

And kissed him as she stole his heart31

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

30 Some versions use “fell upon him” instead of “came upon him” but that definitely changes the nature of the meeting. –BonnieLass67

31 Still playing with expectations here. We expect “stole his heart” as in fell in love, but the next stanzas makes it grossly literal. –Rhiannononymous

She begged sweet Will to show her how32

He differed from the others33

And prove to her his love was true34

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

32 This verse is placed interestingly since if the previous one is to be believed, she’s already fallen on him/come to him and stolen his heart, literally or figuratively. Why this demand? –Rhiannononymous

>Some versions do move this verse earlier. Some move it to before the previous verse (usually matched with “fell upon him” instead of “came upon him” since in that case they’ve already arrived at the same place.) The other variant places it third, just after the invitation to the bridge, as if it’s her response.  –BonnieLass67

> Huh! Either of those would make more sense, since it seems like otherwise this verse interrupts action with a plea. She’s making the demand after she’s already set things in motion. Unless they had already talked it over, and this is her hoping that he does what he’s promised.  –Rhiannononymous

33 This implies that this has happened before. It’s sort of melancholy. Men… –Dynamum

34 There’s no answer given to her request that he prove himself, or else the verse that follows is the test where he’s supposed to prove himself. –Rhiannononymous

His beating heart35 she placed inside36

A37 gnarled and knotted ancient38

to quicken39 come the springtime thaw40

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

35 There’s really no figurative way to take this. And ew, why is it still beating? –Dynamum

36 ironic that she places the heart so delicately after ripping it out of his chest. –HangThaDJ

37 Some early variants say “*her* gnarled and knotted ancient.“ –BonnieLass67

38 Gnarled and knotted ancient what? That’s a weird description. –Dynamum

> “A gnarled and knotted ancient” = presumably a very old tree. –Rhiannononymous

>Hey @HenryMartyn, did you or Rydell find a tree like this?HolyGreil

>All the trees I’ve seen are new growth. HenryMartyn

39 Maybe she thinks his heart in the tree will beat faster when she visits –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

40 I think this is the other meaning of “quicken,” like “to enter into a phase of active growth and development” per dictionary (example is seeds quickening in soil). –BarrowBoy

> But then why place it in an old tree instead of in the ground? –Dynamum

> How would I know? –BarrowBoy

And in his chest she built with care41

A nest of twigs and leaf-fall42

An acorn43,44 cushioned there to grow

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

41 Again, it goes out of its way to say how much care she took with this part of the operation. –Dynamum

42 In his blog, Dr. Rydell said “The true nature of the exchange made by Ellen and seemingly agreed to by William is perhaps the greatest mystery remaining in this ballad.” Jenny Kirk is helping me do research into Gall’s local folklore. She was telling the truth that their museum is crap, but she’s great.  –HenryMartyn

43 Maybe this acorn becomes the sapling at his grave? –Dynamum

44 fun fact: only one in ten thousand acorns becomes an oak tree. –HangThaDJ

And turned he then to look at her

With eyes still seeking answers45,46

She kissed him twice47and left him there48

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

45 I think this line goes out of its way to make clear that he’s not vegetative at this point, pardon the pun. He’s aware enough to ask questions, though you’d think he would have looked at her before now, and asked questions before now, like “Hey, do you mind putting my heart back? I’m using that.” –Rhiannononymous

46 Maybe he was under some kind of spell? –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

> Stop marking me down! A few lines later he has literally no voice, so a spell isn’t unreasonable. He’s trying to use his eyes to ask questions. –Dynamum

>@BarrowBoy all you ever do is mark stretches and shoot down other peoples’ theories without ever offering any yourself. Do you care about this ballad at all?–Dynamum

>I don’t even like this song. The melody’s okay, but it needs a bridge. –BarrowBoy

>technically it has a bridge. old, made of stone…  –HangThaDJ

>Argh. If you don’t like the song, why are you here? –Dynamum 

>For those sweet sweet LyricSplainer level badges. U?  –BarrowBoy

>I love the song, but also it’s fascinating! A lot of songs are straightforward, but I love the ones like this that develop a sort of detective team. We’ve got BonnieLass with all the background/history stuff, and Henry the dashing young field work expert, and DJ with random facts and Greil with musicology and Rhiannononymous on language details. –Dynamum

>What does that make you? Comic relief?  –BarrowBoy

>Better than you, the one everyone hates but has to put up with. –Dynamum

>If @HenryMartyn’s our field researcher, can I point out that he’s stopped responding? His last response here was on the last verse, over a year ago, and he hasn’t posted on any other songs either. I keep checking in hoping he’ll tell us more about his film. I wish I knew his real name. HolyGreil

>Hmm. I searched “state arts grant” and “Mark Rydell” and “Looking For Love in All the Lost Places” and got a hit in Pennsylvania. Looks like he’s a Henry from a city called Williamsport (William’s Port? coincidence?) who was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania when he got the grant.  I’m not going to post his actual surname here. It seems rude.  –Dynamum

>Look at you with the real detective work! Thanks for the lead. Hmm. He was part of the grant announcement, but not the end of year presentation. –HolyGreil

47 Is twice significant? She’d already kissed him once (as she stole his heart) but it’s unclear if this is a second kiss, or two more kisses. –Rhiannononymous

> Maybe the second kiss takes his voice. –Dynamum

> It’s true that he’s already using his eyes to ask.HolyGreil

> I said he was under a spell and got mocked for it! It’s not like this all has to have exact basis in truth. Maybe they just like kissing. –Dynamum

48 Where did she go? This song never quite makes her and her sisters seem like part of the village. –Rhiannononymous

Young William to the village went

His feet still knew the pathways49

He knew he’d left his years50,51 behind52

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

49 He’d made this trip so many times he knew it automatically. (I almost said “by heart”) –Dynamum

50 “His years” = the rest of his days? Living on borrowed time now? –Rhiannononymous

51 Some variants say “his fears” instead of his years; others say he left “something.” –BonnieLass67

52 this does make it seem like some kind of spell, like he’s stumbling back without knowing what he’s doing or what has happened. –HangThaDJ

> THANK YOU. I TOLD YOU. –Dynamum

[“Wake up,” he cried, though no one heard53,54,55

“And find the wicked woman56,57

Who stole my life and voice away

Where oaken hearts do gather”]

 

53 It doesn’t say anything about her taking his voice before this. –BarrowBoy

54 @Moderator can we delete this verse or add it at the bottom? It’s only in a handful of the twentieth century versions and nothing earlier. Not part of the original ballad. –BonnieLass67

–Lyricsplainer ModeratorBot has received this comment and will bring it to a moderator’s attention–

55 It changes a lot, doesn’t it? “Wicked woman” sounds like it was written by someone else entirely. Without this verse, William just goes along with what’s happening. –Rhiannononymous

56 Interesting that he doesn’t know where to find her. There’s no verse where the villagers show up at her house, either, even when they spring into action. –Rhiannononymous

57 i feel bad for him, but he’s kind of a jerk here, trying to shout in the town square in the middle of the night or whatever for everyone to come listen to his problems. i mean, not that any of this is his fault, except he did tell a woman to meet him under the bridge without any regard for the trouble he could get her in. and it does seem like he consented to her test? –HangThaDJ

And when the village came to him58

He could59 not tell his story

Or say what fate befell their son60

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

58 Does anyone else think it’s strange that “the village came to him”? Where was he? I mean, I guess it means the villagers, not the village, and they came to him at his house? –Dynamum

59 “Would not” instead of “could not” in some early variations. –BonnieLass67

> Ha! Would not = wood knot! Get it? –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

>@Dynamum I like that pun no matter if it’s a stretch. Don’t let him get you down. –Rhiannononymous

60 This collective “their son” is fascinating considering what they do next. This song has some messed up families, y’all. –Rhiannononymous

>Wait, it’s collective? Like “the son of the village?” I thought it meant “their son” like William and Ellen’s son! –Dynamum

> I never thought of that, but that works too! Especially with the whole quickening thing!

We talked about quickening a seed, but not quickening a womb.  –Rhiannononymous

– Rhiannonymous marked this as cool stuff–

–BonnieLass67 marked this as cool stuff–

–HangThaDJ marked this as cool stuff–

They looked at him with mournful eyes61

Then listened for his heartbeat62,63,64

Where oaken hearts do gather65

Then hung him from the gallows pole66

 

61 The mournful eyes have always made me think they’ve seen this before. –Dynamum

62 It’s unclear whether they listened for his heartbeat because they’d seen something like this before that his tale reminded them of, or because he looks unwell. –Rhiannononymous

63 And, y’know, he wasn’t speaking –BarrowBoy

64 Did people know about heartbeats by the time this song was written? –Dynamum

> OMG have you heard of Wikipedia? –BarrowBoy

65 This has always horrified me, that they just went and hung him. I guess it’s understandable if they were freaked out that he didn’t have a heartbeat, but still… –Dynamum

66 Out of all the stanzas, this is the one that makes the least sense with “where oaken hearts do gather” as opposed to “while oaken sisters watch.” –BonnieLass67

> Yeah, the town gallows pole was likely not in the same place where oaken hearts do gather, unless you count that a gallows made of oak might contain oaken hearts, whatever they are. –Rhiannononymous

>As you might guess, Gall took down their gallows pole like two hundred years ago. –HenryMartyn

And in the woods67 fair Ellen wept68

For she had truly loved him69

And tried to claim70 him in her way71,72

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

67 It’s interesting that she’s in the woods again here, since she had left him there? Didn’t she go home? –Dynamum

68 How is she still being called fair? –BarrowBoy

69 It’s interesting that the song tells us this, since otherwise you’d think she’s monstrous. I mean, her actions are still monstrous, but somehow it’s better if they’re done out of love?–Rhiannononymous

70 Some versions say “keep” instead of claim. –BonnieLass67

71 This “in her way” does a lot of work. –Rhiannononymous

72 Some versions say “and hoped he’d prove his love to her,” which would harken back to whatever proof she was demanding of him earlier.  –BonnieLass67

And Ellen’s sisters bowed their heads73

“There’s no good that can follow

A man met moonlight ‘neath the bridge

Where oaken hearts do gather”

 

73 greek chorus back for an encore of their greatest hit, “i told you so.” –HangThaDJ

The villagers with torches went74,75

To rid their woods of danger76,77

There to avenge the boy they’d hung78

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

74 This verse and the two above it and one below it are often sung in a different order. –BonnieLass67

75 i’m anti-villagers with torches and pitchforks generally. –HangThaDJ

76 They’re going to burn the oak trees. William must have given good directions before they hung him, if they think they know which specific trees to burn. –Rhiannononymous

> Spoiler: for real, they chopped and burned ALL the oak trees they could find. Jenny’s older sisters say it was barbarous, and I’ve seen the result myself. Everything is new growth from the past forty years since they stopped that practice, but you can see the damage done. HenryMartyn

77 I wonder what the actual danger is that they think they’re protecting against. Have they had other men stolen this way? I guess if you let it happen once, it could happen more… –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

> Argh. Go stretch someone else. I’m just saying we’ve all got our eyes on Ellen, but what do her sisters do all day other than watch? And @HenryMartyn, what do their town records say about stolen people? –Dynamum

>Jenny says they lost all their old birth and death records in a fire they lost control of. HenryMartyn

78 so they felt like they had to hang poor william, but then they go out and avenge him for the wrong ellen did him? there’s some misdirected anger here.  –HangThaDJ

But neath the bridge they saw no trace79

Nor down the steep embankment80

And none could ever find the place81

Where oaken hearts do gather82

 

79 Beneath the bridge they saw no trees or they couldn’t find Ellen? It’s unclear. –Rhiannononymous

80 The steep embankment was another specific geographic clue that Dr. Rydell had hoped to find. –HenryMartyn

>Can confirm: it’s here! The bridge goes over what’s now a sort of dry gully, but the banks are steep. And, cool thing! I don’t know whether it’s the stone or the moss or some mineral or what, but I guess something’s leaching into the ground here that’s tinting the leaves red near the bridge. I wonder if Dr. Rydell ever got to see this.  –HenryMartyn

81 The only rhyme in the whole ballad, for what it’s worth. –Rhiannononymous

>Some early variants have the third line as “and none could find poor William’s heart.” It’s possible that the line was original and this change came later, since it’s odd to have a single rhyming line. –BonnieLass67

>If they couldn’t find William’s heart, does that mean there was one old tree that the villagers didn’t manage to find? –Dynamum

>I don’t think @HenryMartyn can search the whole forest. –BarrowBoy

>fun fact! a forest has a traditional legal definition as land owned by the sovereign and set aside as a hunting ground. –HangThaDJ

>He can’t search the whole woods, then. –BarrowBoy

82 I don’t know why I’m only thinking of this like fifteen verses in, but if you frame a song around oaks gathering, isn’t the opposite of that to disperse? Maybe they couldn’t find them because they sometimes go elsewhere. Maybe this whole song exists to tell you what to do if this particular thing starts happening to the oaks near you. That could be why it’s tall bridge and fall’s bridge etc too, and different names=different aliases. Maybe there’s a rotation and this town tried harder to get the warning out and protect themselves. –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

Long winter passed then came the thaw83,84

That set springtime a-budding

A sapling grew from William’s grave85

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

83 The Dead turned this verse to major instead of minor. –HolyGreil

84 The Kingston Trio ended with this verse. –BonnieLass67

85 Are we not even going to talk about this sapling thing? –Dynamum

>I found a grave that I think is William Butcher’s, though the stone is very worn and it’s hard to tell. There’s no tree, but I took the next verse to mean that the sapling that grew at the grave was cut down too. –HenryMartyn

And every spring86 the villagers

To the woods bring torch and axe

To cut short every sapling grown87,88

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

86 And this verse holds Dr. Rydell’s last two big clues! “Every spring” suggested that they might have some sort of village tradition that was still passed down, even if they didn’t know why anymore. On his blog he said the village he found, Gall, had an annual spring festival with a parade and bonfire. –HenryMartyn

87 Rydell had speculated that the village he was looking for would be near a woods full of mature oaks (keeping in mind that there are plenty of places where woods have been cut back over the centuries, so it wasn’t necessarily there to find at all; he looked at places that had been forested in earlier times as well). Then he realized what this verse implied. Instead of looking for a woods full of oaks, he wanted to go looking for a woods that was, unusually, missing its oaks, under the assumption that the village had kept cutting them down. So now I can personally confirm the woods near Gall is full of old hornbeams and ash trees and the like, but almost no oaks at all. The oaks that are here are younger, which matches up with recent changes to the village’s festival. It used to involve cutting down all the oaks at the end of the summer and burning them in a bonfire, but conservationists argued that was wasteful and poor management, and they stopped doing it in the 1970s. I got here too late for this year’s fest, but apparently now they just do a symbolic burning of a single tree they’ve chopped down for the purpose.  –HenryMartyn

–BonnieLass67 marked this as cool stuff–

88 Interesting that this accounts for the saplings in the woods, but not the one at William’s grave. Did they cut that one down or leave it? –Rhiannononymous

>I was asking about that sapling too! –Dynamum

>There’s one broadside that includes a verse that may answer your question. “And when that day the villagers/uprooted William’s sapling/a keening cry was heard by all/where oaken hearts do gather” –BonnieLass67

>Why wasn’t that one generally included? That’s great.  –Rhiannononymous

> Child may not have liked the sourcing. In that one version, it replaced the big Revenge On the Trees verse, which was definitely original. –BonnieLass67

Still sometimes89 when the wind blow cold

And strips red leaves90 from branches

Fair Ellen takes91 another love92

Where oaken hearts do gather93

 

89 Some early versions say “somewhere” instead of “sometimes.” Somewhere doesn’t make as much sense, since presumably the where is known, even if the trees weren’t found. –BonnieLass67

> That “somewhere” was something Dr. Rydell speculated about in his final blog post. That post was published widely after his disappearance and derided as sentimental and unmoored from fact by many of the same people who had praised his original forensic work. He had worked so hard to find this village, only to start musing about whether a stray “somewhere” might mean this had happened in more than one place. It undercut everything except the song’s extensive travels.  –HenryMartyn

> You haven’t told us anything about his disappearance! What’s up with that? –HolyGreil

>After that last post saying he’d landed in London and was heading to Gall, he stopped posting and all his known emails bounced. He never returned to his professorship. Nobody here remembers him, and there’s nothing in the police records (I was trying to be thorough.)  Unsolved mystery.HenryMartyn

90 I’d just like to point out you’ve discussed stealing voices and oaken hearts but you’ll only accept accurate botanical explanations for the red leaves. Not every line has to be perfectly based in truth. Magic? A portent? Some weather pattern that changes the amount of anthocyanin in certain years? A poetically resonant image?  (@BarrowBoy, I’m going to beat you to the punch.) –Dynamum

–Dynamum marked this as a stretch–

91 I love the present tense in this verse, like it’s still going on. And the multiple meanings of “take” here: take a lover, take a life, or the whole sentence “takes another love where oaken hearts do gather” like she’s bringing him home to meet the family. –Rhiannononymous

92 And this reminder again from a narrator that we have no reason to disbelieve, saying that it’s a love she takes, not a victim. –Rhiannononymous

93 In his last blog post, Rydell wrote “One of the strange things about this ballad is that we’re never quite sure what kind of story it is. Is it a warning about monstrous trees or monstrous lovers? A cautionary tale about forest management? Are we meant to laud the villagers as heroic for their actions? The Gall festival would suggest so, but then why is Ellen portrayed so ambiguously? Maybe we are meant to sing it as the love story of sweet William and fair Ellen. If you ignore the incongruous “wicked woman” verse, neither lover betrays the other’s expectations, and it’s only because of the villagers that their story turns tragic.” –HenryMartyn

>Having been here a while and listened to Jenny and her sisters, I’ve come to think it’s a little of all the above. Maybe Rydell is right that it’s a love story with a message that love involves give and take, and some ask for more than others. That’s not always such a bad thing, if you’re willing to give.HenryMartyn

>@HenryMartyn can you ask your friend Jenny if there are any old oaks that escaped the festival? Like in the “none could ever find the place/none could find poor William’s heart” verse? –Dynamum

>Thanks for that suggestion! Jenny says she thinks she knows of one. We’re taking another walk in the woods tonight. I’m still looking for the right ending for my film, but I think I’m close. It feels funny to be searching for traces of Rydell where he was searching for traces of truth in this ballad, like we’re all chasing each other.  Anyway, thanks for your continued help on this, friends. If nothing else, maybe we’re part of the cycle, bringing an old song to new listeners. HenryMartyn

Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker’s first novel, A Song For A New Day, won the Nebula Award for best novel, and her collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea won the Philip K Dick Award. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and other awards. Her books and stories have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, and Mandarin, among other languages. Her second novel, We Are Satellites, will be published in May 2021. She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums and another forthcoming. She lives in Baltimore with her wife, their dog, and a lot of guitars.

One Response to “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

  1. Jack V

    Oh gosh, the Oaken Hearts story is really good, and worrying! I kept trying to sing the song!

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