"Holly Tree" as written by and Dar Williams....
When the robin builds in the holly tree
It's a sign of life, its gentle victory
Well, today as I set to go
I saw a nest in a tree hollow

Oh Emily, you're a brave girl
With your husband gone to the other world
Sing a hymn while I light the fire
We'll be joined by a heavenly choir

Here's the tansy and the chamomile tea for you to drink
As the pain increases, well you only have to think
About a baby. We'll save the baby

I placed a holly sprig by the doctor's door
He has done this well and many times before
He'll be careful which way he goes
But he's been kind to us farm widows

And this I heard just the other day
That they came to buy, and you chose to stay
Soon a child will help you reap and sow
May he cast a long shadow

But you say the trials are coming, you have felt the gathering forces
And the galloping you hear is of one too many horses
But rest your head my darling girl, there won't be any danger
Any Christian ever loved an infant in a manger
Saves the baby. They'll save the baby

Now the pastor comes, shakes the farmer's hand
Says, "The earth will bear like the promised land"
You have heard the stories down below
But God will bless this farm hollow?

Now the farmer's wife shudders, pulls the shawl up to her shoulder
Every time she nears the hearth she feels a little colder
Where's the baby? There was a baby

Lyrics submitted by abccherry

"Holly Tree" as written by Dar Williams

Lyrics © BMG Rights Management

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Holly Tree song meanings
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  • 0
    General CommentI don't really understand the last two verses of this song.
    Cyberghoston August 04, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General CommentDar says in the liner notes that the song has to do with the role real estate played in the Salem witch trials-- often the women who were targeted were widows who were in possession of prime property for, among other things I'm sure, farmland.

    Emily is the widow in this song, and the narrator appears to be a midwife helping her through her pregnancy. There is some herbal medicine involved, which would have been held up as evidence of witchcraft. The midwife assures Emily "He'll be careful which way he goes / But he's been kind to us farm widows"-- maybe this hints that the doctor must be careful not to be seen publicly helping these women during the witch hunts? The holly sprig placed by his door might be a secret message that Emily requires assistance.

    Unfortunately Emily and perhaps even the midwife and doctor are finally caught, put on trial, and killed; they saw this coming but never imagined anyone could be so crazed and cruel to kill a pregnant woman: "Any Christian ever loved an infant in a manger / Saves the baby. They'll save the baby."

    The last two verses are about a new couple moving into Emily's estate-- a farmer and his wife. The pastor, most likely complicit in the trials, is "blessing" this transaction, but the farmer's wife senses or perhaps even knows outright that there is something wrong with this-- maybe she sees a portent of her own future when her own husband dies: "Every time she nears the hearth she feels a little colder."

    In the last line we find out the baby was not saved, after all, despite the optimism of the midwife narrator.
    ans99on October 28, 2009   Link
  • 0
    Song MeaningTansy is an abortifacent. I'm not sure if we're supposed to think that the midwife is just an idiot or if she thought Emily shouldn't have a baby and aborted it on purpose. Maybe since the trials are coming and all that, she thinks the baby wouldn't be safe and doesn't believe "they'll save the baby".
    lullabeeon January 16, 2010   Link
  • 0
    My InterpretationAccording to some herbals, tansy was also used to prevent miscarriages, and I think that's what's happening here (because of the line about how the child will help reap and sow). I can only think that it's like some homeopathic medicines, where a small dose will cure the same thing a large dose will cause. Anyway, I love the song--it's haunting and beautiful.
    dkwjon February 23, 2011   Link
  • 0
    My InterpretationTrying to figure out what this song means, so I've got some thoughts on interpretation as well as some questions.

    Emily is clearly a pregnant farm widow, and a devout Christian one at that (singing hymns and being joined by heavenly choirs in her moment of need).

    She is relying on her soon-to-be born child to help her keep her farm, where she wants to stay despite her husband's death. This is why the narrator is hopeful that the child will cast a long shadow.

    But she can't wait for the child to come naturally; she needs him to arrive asap before the authorities arrive to take her into custody for witchcraft (a ploy to steal her land). So she takes the tansy and chamomile to induce contractions and labor.*

    She's hoping that with a child they might let her stay on the farm, or maybe she just doesn't want to give birth in prison (which would probably result in both of them dying). And she is in a major rush, because the forces are gathered and she can hear them coming with an extra horse in tow to take her away. That baby needs to come now.

    I imagine that either the baby dies during labor or is born and sent to prison with his mother (where he either dies or is given to someone else after his mother's death). Certainly, as we know from the coda, baby and mother are not living happily ever after--the ploy did not work, for whatever reason.

    The upshot is the lack of compassion greedy folks have for struggling people, including widows and infant children, despite what we all assume should be their Christian compassion. Even if they would have been softened at the sight of a small child, the mother (and/or the child) could have died as a result of the attempt to deliver early. How callous are we, that we put people in positions where their best bet is to risk their lives?

    And the new farmer's wife in the last verse can sense not only the tragedy of the previous owner and appreciate its lingering mystery (What happened to that baby?), but is newly awakened to the coldness of what is supposed to be warm. She's heard the stories, and understood what they really show--her narrative/myth of domesticity has been demystified.

    What I don't understand, still, is the role of the doctor. It makes sense that he'd be able to help in delivery of an early child, and that he'd be sympathetic ("kind to us farm widows"). But why then must he be secretive about where he's going ("careful which way he goes")? Maybe he's afraid of angering the authorities?

    *Even if tansy and chamomile are now known to be abortifacients in sufficient doses, it doesn't seem like that's the intent: after all the last line of that very same verse is the wish to save the baby. Unless there's another child already in the picture and Emily is trying to terminate the pregnancy so she can take care of the one she has. But why then would that already-alive child be described as "a baby" (emphasis on "a")? And why would the child who helps her reap and sow be "a" child as well? It seems there must be only one child in the picture, and it's the one she's carrying. So it seems to me like they are trying to induce labor, not perform an abortion.
    tgp2011on April 26, 2017   Link

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