December 17, 2014 at 9:04 pm #3842
I like to listen to historical Christmas carols each year and I like it when I find a new one that I hadn’t heard before. Bonus points if the lyrics are particularly intriguing. With that in mind, I came across a song entitled, “There was a pig” or “There was a pig went out to dig”. What makes this a Christmas carol, you ask? Good question. Here is the main verse:
There was a pig went out to dig, Chrisimas Day, Chrisimas Day, There was a pig went out to Dig On Chrisimas Day in the morning.
Subsequent verses replace “pig” and “dig” the other rhyming animals/activities. I did a quick search and could not find the meaning of this song. The link above says this song was an English folk tune, and it sounds like it could be mid- to late-nineteenth century, but I could be wrong. Anyone have any hunches about its deeper meaning? Here is the version I first heard:December 10, 2016 at 12:04 pm #57599
I decided to try to do some further digging (get it?) for the meaning of this song, and the earliest reference was in an 1893 edition of “English County Songs”. Take a look at the music sheet and all seven verses (“There was a cow went out to plough, Chrisimas Day….”).
Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything there that discussed anything about the song itself.
Continuing my search, I came across a publication from 1894 called The Spectator – “A weekly review of politics, literature, theology, and art”, published in London. In there is a review of the aforementioned “English County Songs” book, published the prior year, which discusses how the editors gathered songs that “the country-people still sing when they are among themselves and are not showing-off to ‘gentlemen from London’.”
Funny. What came to my mind at reading this was Lark Rise to Candleford, a very light and charming TV drama that came out a few years ago that centers on rural English life.
Anyway, this review only briefly mentions the Christmas pig song, and describes it as “a very fascinating nonsense-song” as it goes down the list of animals and their rhyming activities. So, could this be it? Is that all there is to it? If there was originally a deeper meaning to the song, it could be that the editors of the book were simply in the dark about the meaning of the song and that the country folk who sang the song in 1894 didn’t know where came from, either. Or, it could be that it really was a nonsensical song, similar to the way we have our own nonsensical songs today based upon rhyming and repetitive verses.
Well, that’s about it on this song. One more Christmas mystery solved, or maybe just shelved until additional information is uncovered.December 20, 2018 at 4:34 pm #58603
The time came for me to revisit this topic yet again, and unfortunately, I was still unable to find references to the song much earlier than I found before. However, I did find a few additional verses to the song in a collection of Percy Grainger from 1915.
As you can see from the notes, Mr. Grainger added two of these verses himself, and the rest was supplied by “Miss Mason’s ‘Nursery Rhymes and Country Songs'”.
While I could not find the actual text of Mason’s publication, I did see a reference to it in The Illustrated London News in November 1877. I also found an interesting article on the life of Miss Marianne Mason which was published in 2014. It gives a good background on her life, including how she helped get a law passed in England which helped protect adopted children in the wake of the Amelia Dyer “baby farm” scandal (which I had not known about).
Anyway, the 2014 article happened to include what appears to be an appendix from the Mason song book, which included this noteworthy comment about “There Was a Pig Went Out to Dig”:
This tune is sung in Lancashire. There are no words, properly speaking, beyond the first verse, bin rhymes were invented according to the pleasure of the singers. The melody is that of an old Christmas Carol, ‘There were three ships came sailing by’.
If you are wondering, the song, “There were three ships came sailing by,” was a related tune to the more popular song, “I saw three ships come sailing in,” which seems to have some similarities to other Christmas songs going back at least to the mid-sixteenth century. In 1861, Joshua Sylvester said about the tune, “It has always been a great favorite with the illiterate, and from its quaintness will be found not displeasing to the more refined.”
If I had to synopsize, “There was a pig went out to dig” probably originated as a folk song on the Western coast of England by the mid-1800s, borrowing a melody from an existing Christmas song, with the possible function of an amusing and nonsensical ditty that can be expanded on demand through improvisation. In essence, it was kind of like an “Old MacDonald had a farm” song for the Christmas season with no real deeper meaning.
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