Folk song 18 has variously titles including “The King”, “The Wren” and “Please to see the King”. It’s a house-visiting song, based on the old custom of hunting and killing a wren on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day). Mythically the wren was the king of the birds; the story goes that young men would kill a wren, wrap it in cloth and put it in a box, then take it around the houses offering to let people see “the king”. (An awful lot of folk customs become easier to understand when we factor in the universal urge among young men to get dressed up after work and have a laugh.) The song has some affinities with The Cutty Wren, which derives from the same custom; the “powder and shot” verse is very similar.
“Old Christmas” in the last verse may refer to Old Christmas, i.e. Christmas before the clocks went back in 1752. Alternatively, it may just be a meaningless one-syllable intensifier – “old Christmas” as in “my old friend”, “the Old Bill”, “old Cary Grant” etc. It’s hard to be sure, since the eleven-day discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars in 1752 almost exactly matches the twelve days of the Christmas church holiday itself; either way, Twelfth Night marks the point where Christmas is over. As indeed it is now. What the reference to Twelfth Night is doing in a Boxing Day house-visiting song is another matter; they wouldn’t have used an eleven-day-old dead wren, would they?
It’s a short song, anyway – if you’d pressed Play to begin with you would have heard it by now. Here it’s sung unaccompanied, in four-part harmony; I wrote the harmonies myself, with a little assistance from the Steeleye Span version. (I’m still finding it hard to hear harmonies – writing them from scratch is much easier.) I was toying with the idea of dubbing in a sound file containing the words “Rock on, Tommy!” in verse 4, but I couldn’t find one; you’ll just have to imagine it.