Sangstories - Stories of Scottish Songs

Tales of Scottish traditional and newer songs sung by Sangschule of Linlithgow

Green Grows The Laurel

Green grows the laurel and sweet falls the dew
Sorry was I love when parting from you
But by our next meeting I hope you'll prove true
And we'll change the green laurel to the violets so blue

Once I had a sweetheart but now I have none,
He's gone and he's left me to weep and to mourn,
He's gone and he's left me but contented I'll be
For I'll get another far better than he

He wrote me a letter, four sweet rosy lines,
I wrote him another all twisted and twined
You keep your love letters and I will keep mine
You write to your love and I'll write to mine

He passes my window both early and late
And the looks that he gives me it makes my heart break
The looks that he gives me a thousand times o'er
Says you are the sweetheart I once did adore

I oftimes do wonder why young maids love men
I oftimes do wonder why young men love them,
But by my experience, I now ought to know
Young men are deceivers wherever they go

This song was brought to Sangschule by Aileen Carr, one of Scotland’s finest traditional singers, originally from Perthshire and drawn to folk song by early attendance at the Blairgowrie festivals. The group was lucky to have Aileen as a regular tutor for about a year.
This is an old and well-travelled song, turning up throughout Britain and in Canada and America. Gavin Greig first heard it from a policeman in Bathgate who “picked it up from the singing of some fisher girls in Shetland” according to The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, vol.6.
Two versions appear in Travellers’ Songs from England and Scotland by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, who comment on the many possible variations within the structure of the song. For example, instead of changing to “the violets so blue” it could be “the orange and blue”, “the bonnets of blue”, “ the red, white and blue” or even “the origin blue”. They add that the variation “has produced a correspondingly large crop of interpretations”, many of them political eg the blue bonnets of Stewart supporters and the orange and green of Irish Unionists.
The folk music website www.mudcat.org has a long thread of question and comment in its Forum and several people mention the hoary story that the word “gringo” was used by Mexicans for the American enemies they heard repeating “Green grow” as they sang during the wars of 1846 –1848. Evidence for this appears to be shaky.
An American website dealing with rumours, www.snapes.com reckons that the word antedates the conflict by at least 60 years. It quotes a book by Hugh Rawson, Devious Derivations, 1994: “The Diccianario Castellano (Spanish Dictionary) of 1787 noted that in Malaga ‘foreigners who have a certain type of accent which keeps them from speaking Spanish easily and naturally’ were referred to as gringos, and the same term was used in Madrid, particularly for the Irish.”
In the Victorian language of flowers, “violets of blue” translate as faithfulness. “Rue” sometimes appears in the first line and this as “loss of virginity” could apply, but the presence of laurel, to crown the victor, and occasionally yew, connected with death, is less clear. Now if it had been the “green willow” of sadness, being exchanged for violets, the meaning would have been straightforward, but then it would have been a different song.