Green Grow The Rushes, Ho! An English Folksong

Green Grow The Rushes Oh!I wanted to share a fantastic English folk song common in Somerset and the Westcountry which I recently learned. It’s really difficult to get out of your head once started and its great for making long car journey’s fly by!

It’s called Green Grow The Rush, O! though is sometimes referred to as The Twelve Prophets or The Ten Commandments. The lyrics of the song are in quite obscure, with an unusual mixture of Christian, astronomical and pagan symbols, all wrapped up in a mnemonic to remember them by.

I’ll sing you one, Ho
Green grow the rushes, Ho
What is your one, Ho?
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I’ll sing you two, Ho
Green grow the rushes, Ho
What are your two, Ho?
Two, two, the lily white boys clothéd all in green-o.
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

The format is followed, building up verse by verse by adding twelve stanzas so that the final song looks like this:

I’ll sing you twelve, Ho
Green grow the rushes, Ho
What are your twelve, Ho?
Twelve for the twelve apostles.
Eleven for the eleven that went to heaven.
Ten for the Ten Commandments.
Nine for the nine bright shiners.
Eight for the April rainers.
Seven for the seven stars in the sky.
Six of the six proud walkers.
Five for the symbols at your door.
Four for the gospel makers.
Three, three, the rivals.
Two, two, the lily white boys clothéd all in green-o.
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

If you want to hear it being sung, there’s some videos on YouTube of people performing it.

So what do all those obscure lines really mean?

Twelve for the twelve apostles.

This refers to the twelve Apostles of Jesus, although the number has other meanings; it may originally have referred to the months of the year.

Eleven for the eleven that went to heaven.

These are the eleven Apostles who remained faithful (minus Judas Iscariot).

Ten for the Ten Commandments.

This refers to the Ten Commandments given to Moses.

Nine for the nine bright shiners.

The nine may be an astronomical reference: the Sun, Moon and five planets known before 1781 yields seven and to this may be added the sphere of the fixed stars and the Empyrean, or it may refer to the nine orders of angels

Eight for the April rainers.

The April rainers refer to the Hyades star cluster, called the “rainy Hyades” in classical times, and rising with the sun in April; the Greeks thought of the Hyades as inaugurating the April rains.

Seven for the seven stars in the sky.

The seven are probably the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades star cluster. Other options include Ursa Major, the seven traditional planets or the seven stars of Revelation chapter 1, verse 16.

Six of the six proud walkers.

This may be a corruption of ‘six proud waters’, a reference to the six jars of water that Jesus turned into wine at the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee, (John 2:6).

Five for the symbols at your door.

This could be a reference to the marks of blood that god commanded the Israelites to put upon their doorways at the Exodus (Exodus 12:7). It could also allude to the practice of putting a pentagram at the door of a house to ward off witches and evil spirits in the late Middle Ages. Other suggestions are that it refers to five symbols displayed above the doorways of houses that would shelter Catholic priests.

Four for the gospel makers.

This refers to the four Evangelists, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.

Three, three, the rivals.

‘Rivals’ may be a corruption of “Riders”, “Arrivals”, or “Wisers”, referring to the three Magi of the Nativity. Another possibility is the trio of Peter, James and John, often mentioned together in the Gospels, who had a dispute.

Two, two, the lily white boys clothéd all in green-o.

This may refer to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus where Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus in clothes of ‘dazzling white’. The “dressed in green” would then refer to St Peter’s suggestion that the disciples build shelters of branches for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Another explanation is that the statues of St John and Our Lady which, in Christian Churches, flank the Crucifix on the Altar reredos or the Rood screen were, during Holy Week, bound with rushes to cover them.

One is one and all alone, And evermore shall be so.

This appears to refer to God.

Further reading

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2 comments

  1. What a treat to come upon this post as I research for my choirs! You also might be interested to know that this is where the term “Gringo” comes from in Hispanic-America. The Spanish who had settled out west heard the settlers singing in as they came in from the East, and heard “Gring-o” when they sang the refrain. The American pioneers had gotten the song from across the pond!

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