“The Bitter Withy” (A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl)

This English ballad, uncollected in the Child Ballads, presents a startlingly human picture of the youthful Jesus. He likes playing ball, he resents his mother’s punishments, and he’s quick to anger. He also drowns three rich boys who insult his lowly status, and he does it by conjuring a Moses-lite miracle: a sun bridge is projected across a body of water, and it collapses as soon as the rich boys try to cross over. So Jesus is both absolutely human, and he’s also ready to revolt: proto-politically, he aggressively takes the side of the poor. But he’s also absolutely terrifying, a possible bad seed, and definitely someone you don’t want to cross. As his final act here, while Mary is whacking him with a switch from a withy tree, he curses the tree (the whole species!) and makes it suffer a rotting death from the inside, from the “heart.” Some might call it overkill, but perhaps that’s human, too. A bit of a celebration, then, of a pleb who won’t take shit from no one and nothing.


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