I continue to make my way through the carols in “Songs from the Hill Folk,” a medley in this year’s Boston Pops program (see my write-up about Jesus, Jesus, rest your head from a few days ago). If “Jesus, Jesus” found John Jacob Niles conflating the roles of song collector and songwriter—as he also famously did with “I Wonder as I Wander”—then “The Seven Joys of Mary” finds him more firmly in song collector territory.
I’ve written before about English ballads and ballad collectors, and “Seven Joys” (also called the “Seven Blessings of Mary”) is one of those. The tune that Niles found in Cherokee County, North Carolina in 1933 is quite unlike other tunes for the song, but hews closely to the traditions of the “number song.” There were many earlier known versions, including “The Ferste Joye, As I 3ou Telle” from the fifteenth century in England. Later versions included the African American teaching song “Sister Mary’s Twelve Blessings” (published in the Tuskegee Institute Collection in 1883).
Coming back to “The Ferste Joye,” I note two facts with some delight. The first is that it (and its fellow fifteenth century variant “The Ferste Joye as I Zu Telle” are both full-on Middle English carols. The second is that the Hymns and Carols of Christmas site, from which I drew some of this research, recommends using the Junicode font for optimal viewing of the text. That font is created by none other than University of Virginia professor Peter S. Baker, who taught me Old English, and helped me read through Beowulf, more than twenty years ago.