“Greensleeves”: from Henry VIII to Leonard Cohen, five versions of a beautiful timeless refrain

IDEAL STANDARD — Each month, the story of a standard and its multiple interpretations. Today, a love song from the English Renaissance, whose romanticism inspired both the Canadian singer and John Coltrane.

The same goes for popular tunes like certain politicians or TV presenters: they seem to have always been there. Their origin is lost, their necessity too, yet we find them inevitably, almost reassuring by the challenge they address to the impermanence of everything here below. Among the thousands of versions of Greensleeves, this melody whose invention dates back to the Renaissance, those that are tinged with jazz are far from being the most negligible.

Spleen and ideal: Beverly Kenney (1955)

Might as well start with the very idea of ​​grace, Beverly Kenney. She is only 23 years old during this recording and her freshness, her imprudence can only move. What could a Renaissance air of green meadows, gilding and old-fashioned courtesy evoke for this young girl from New Jersey who was starting her career in the jungle of glass and neon lights of New York? Undoubtedly a reverie of pure love, and it is on this ideal that the guitarist Johnny Smith embroidered his adaptation of Greensleevesbecame I’ll Know My Love. Nothing more beautiful than the way Kenney hums at the end, as if to leave with the fleeing clouds. So much charm cannot last however. Perhaps for lack of having believed too much in the ideal and of not having been able to compose with the stupid life, the young woman will kill herself five years later.

Gentlemen and Associates: Paul Desmond (1960)

To interpret Greensleeves on the saxophone, two lessons prevail. Either we try to make it a standard similar to the others and we play it with plaintive accents as does Coleman Hawkins. His version is not clumsy (we are talking about one of the greatest tenors in history) but the graft between the Renaissance and the blues does not take well. Another possibility is to play the ballad with the lightness it perhaps had in the days of noble ladies and handsome gentlemen. Paul Desmond and Jim Hall may seem far from the Round Table with their look of frail myopic and bald intellectuals, their manners raise them to the rank of gentlemen. In two minutes, the case is sent, brief and full of feeling like a sweet note.

African Renaissance: John Coltrane (1961)

Two ways for saxophonists, therefore. And only one for genius. John Coltrane liked three-beat bars, modal systems and the soprano. Between My Favorite Things, its fetish title, and Oh, which will be recorded two days later Greensleeves – which gives an idea of ​​the fire with which it burned – his version of the ballad operates as a junction. In nearly ten minutes, it’s a complete reinvention. Coltrane approaches the theme as a Maghreb sorcery or an African mystery – the track will be included in the album Africa/Brass –, an imaginary that he does not reduce to exotic clichés but on the contrary promotes the exciting, the radiant modernity.

Back to the Fields: Neil Young (1974)

Greensleeves is a crucible. It was said to be composed by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn, the woman he loved and made queen before having her beheaded. It was also said that the woman with “green sleeves” was a whore. It is always easy to project into the past ideas of gallantry or pigsty. The 60s and 70s leaned towards the first option, freezing the tune in a Burne-Jones style picture. Among folk artists (John FaheyJoan Baez…) and rock (Jeff Beck, Ritchie BlackmoreMarianne Faithfull…), he drifts from Renaissance Gothic to flowery romanticism. With stairway to Heaven and Forbidden Games, the theme becomes a must for any teenager in a poncho and long hair who has decided to learn the guitar. Poncho… long hair… Neil Young appears. He too is infatuated with La Belle-aux-manches-vertes. But, solid on his legs, nervous in his attacks and his bust launched in great pendulum movements, he pulls her from the idealized royal courts to restore her to the fields and the raw sensuality of the bodies.

Farewell to Beauty: Leonard Cohen (1974)

The folk troubadour in love with his muses was one day to throw himself at the feet of the Belle dressed in green. Logically, it is at the end of New Skin for the Old Ceremony, album adorned with an angelic copulation taken from an alchemy treatise composed in 1550, that he performs this ritual. But he lends it a very special significance. The words, the melody, the title, everything ends up head over heels. And the Lady is not spared. The topos of the Naked Beauty in the Bath? The poet hopes in vain that he will give life to his mirage. His “songs and lies” (“I sang my songs, I told my lies”) ? Same pudding water. Saying goodbye to Greensleeves, Cohen quips about his own romantic streak. As often with him, lucidity spares the poetic ideal less than the one who pretends to believe in it, a miserable man because he is subject to his desires. Other versions could have been mentioned. The most famous is called amsterdam and degrades courtly love to the embrace of batavian paunches. But this is another story.

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“Greensleeves”: from Henry VIII to Leonard Cohen, five versions of a beautiful timeless refrain

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