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Wurzels

How the charts stopped the evolution of a folk song


My daughter's English homework this week was to find ten interesting new words that she hadn't encountered before.

"Wurzels", I suggested.  I don't know why that particular word suddenly came to me, but it has a certain quirky charm to it. I know it from a Somerset folk song that I learned from my brother as a child.  The song went like this:

"Where be yon blackbird

I knows where 'e be

'E be up yon wurzel tree

An I be after 'e

'E knows I, an' I knows 'e

An' 'e knows I be after 'e

Where be yon blackbird?

I knows where 'e be."

 

I decided to look the word up. Wurzel, it turns out, is short for mangelwurzel, a root vegetable often used for livestock feed (and there is no such thing as a wurzel tree).  It's also the name adopted by a pop folk group, The Wurzels, who soared to fame in the 1970s.  They made the Blackbird song famous when they released it (as the B-side to the Combine Harvester song) in 1976, after I'd learned it from my brother.  But the Wurzels used slightly different lyrics, and a very different tune.

"Where be that Blackbird to?

I know where he be,

He be up yon Wurzel tree,

And I be after he!

Now I sees he, And he sees I,

Buggered if I don’t get en

With a gurt big stick I'll knock em down

Blackbird I'll ave he!"

Maybe this was a variant they grew up with (there are numerous versions of the song, from all across the West Country), or maybe they invented this version themselves.  Either way, every rendition of this song that  has been recorded since has used these same Wurzel lyrics.  When the song became a hit, it halted the natural evolution that had been going on for decades, so that this is now the only version of the song in currency, and other versions are deemed to be 'wrong'.

This is no different from the myriad other ways in which TV and social media have ironed out the variation in language and pronunciation across the country, and will continue to do so.  But every time these local variants die out, our culture loses something.