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The Ballad of Dives and Lazarus

posted Sep 28, 2013, 10:55 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Sep 28, 2013, 10:56 AM ]
Based on today's Gospel parable, The Ballad of Dives and Lazarus is an old 16th-century folk song of either Scottish or English origin. (Traditionally, the unnamed rich man in the Bible is referred to as Dives, the Latin word for rich.) When a British folk group called The Young Tradition recorded it in the 1960's, they wrote: “This is a simple but eloquent version of the story of a rich old man who slighted the beggar Lazarus and got his desserts for doing so. The sung must have appealed to the countryfolk, who would have appreciated the idea of Lazarus, downtrodden on Earth, finding a place in Heaven, where he sits on an angel's knee.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams, who composed Greensleeves, was such a fan of it that in 1939 he composed Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus for harp and string orchestra. He also arranged it as the hymn tune KINGSFOLD, which we sing as I Heard the Voice of Jesus but is also known as O Sing a Song of Bethlehem.

The tune is used for other folk songs such as the English Murder of Maria Marten, the Scottish Gilderoy, and the Irish air Star of the County Down. Canadian songstress Loreena McKennitt uses it for The Seven Joys of Mary on her album “A Midwinter Night's Dream.”

The folk-punk group June Tabor & Oysterband recorded Dives and Lazrus in 1990 on “Freedom and Rain.” Steeleye Span reworked it in 2004 for their folk-rock CD “They Called Her Babylon.”