Babes in the Wood (Magpie Lane)

Play recording: Babes in the Wood (Magpie Lane)

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  • Teideal (Title): Babes in the Wood (Magpie Lane).
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): none.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): 288.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): Q34.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): none.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): song.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Magpie Lane (1993–1998 line-up: Ian Giles, Andy Turner, Tom Bower, Mathew Green, Joanne Acty, Peter Acty ⁊ Di Whitehead).
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): none.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 1995.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): Woodworm Studios, Oxfordshire, England.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): studio album recording.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): Mark Tucker (recording engineer).
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): © Beautiful Jo Records. All rights reserved.
  • Stádas chóipcheart ábhair bhreise (Additional material copyright status): Album artwork and band photograph © Beautiful Jo Records. All rights reserved.


By Míċeál Ó Loċlainn

Compare and contrast

The album cover artwork for the Wassail! album. Painting of people, in historical dress, feasting and making merry.
The Wassail! album cover.

An example of the native English folk singing tradition, this extract from Babes in the Wood, track 14 on Magpie Lane’s third album, the sublime Wassail! A Country Christmas, was added to the Cartlanna to complement the version sung by Joe Heaney.

This song also gives us an example of how songs (just like stories, themes and motifs) cross-seed and propagate across native traditions, both nationally and internationally. Clearly, it echos elements of the famous German fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. But as noted in the entry for Joe’s version, it actually originates in English folklore, deriving from a story of the same name and reportedly based on events that took place in Wayland Wood, Norfolk, in the East Anglia region of England.

Like so many traditional songs, Babes in the Wood has travelled widely. It’s part of the generational repertoire of the Copper family of Rottingdean, Sussex, some 170 miles from Wayland Wood, on England’s south coast. It’s part of Magpie Lane’s, who are based in Oxford, a hundred miles north-west of Rottingdean. And of course, it was part of Joe’s — bringing it four hundred years, four hundred and fifty miles, three countries and a stretch of sea away from where it started; although unfortunately, we don’t know where on his extensive travels Joe picked it up, or from whom.

Ny Kirree fo Niaghtey

The band-members, smiling, in historical costume, with their musical instruments.
The Magpie Lane line-up in 1994.

Readers who enjoy the singing traditions of the other Celtic countries may be interested in track 3 of Wassail!The Sheep are neath the Snow. This is an English language version of the Manx song Ny Kirree fo Niaghtey. (The English title is essentially a direct translation of the Manx original. For reference, the Irish equivalent would be Na Caoirigh faoi Sheachta.)

There are a number of versions in Manx Gaelic available on YouTube. This one, by Barrule Trio, might be a good — and quite pertinent — place to start.

Thanks and credits

We’re grateful to Magpie Lane, especially Andy Turner, and to Tim Healey at Beautiful Jo Records, for allowing us to use this recording in the Cartlanna and to reproduce the album cover and band photo.