In the much-beloved miracle ballad, The Cherry Tree Carol, Joseph doubts the divine origin of Mary’s pregnancy; but to his astonishment, and to his shame, Jesus speaks from within Mary’s womb, causing a cherry tree to bend its branches and offer his mother its fruit. This ballad originates in medieval England; we know that it was spoken or sung during the Coventry Plays for the Feast of Corpus Christi, around 1400. The Cherry Tree Carol was passed on from singer to singer in the British Isles for hundreds of years, and eventually established roots in America, as well. The cherry tree story also made its way into medieval British carols of the mid-fifteenth century. On this recording, The Cherry Tree, we sing an American version of The Cherry Tree Carol, some of its medieval carol ancestors, and other medieval British carols and British-rooted American tunes.
Early in the thirteenth century, Franciscan missionaries traveled to the British Isles, preaching a return to a simple, selfless form of Christianity. As in Italy, where Franciscans composed or inspired the composition of numerous laude spirituali (sacred refrain songs in Italian, based on popular models), Franciscans in Britain set in motion a wave of religious poetry and song in English, the language of the common people.
The medieval English carol is a product of this same vernacular-religious song tradition. We now associate the word carol with Christmas, but this was not the rule in the fifteenth century, when carols were written to celebrate other feasts, saints and occasions, or to teach a moral lesson. The origin of the medieval British carol has been the subject of musicological debate in the twentieth century: were these carols composed to accompany liturgical processions, or were they church-sanctioned alternatives to rude and rowdy dance songs with pagan roots? If it was the latter case, it stands to reason that many of these songs would be appropriate to the Christmas season, which was, since ancient and pagan times, an season of riotous festivity and unruly celebration. Fifteenth-century