Greensleeves (Anonymous)

Classical guitar


Green Sleeves, or Which nobody can deny, has been a favorite tune, from the time of Elizabeth to the present day; and is still frequently heard in the streets of London to songs wth the old burden, Which nobody can deny. It will also be recognised as the air of Christmas comes but once a year, and many another merry ditty.

The earliest mention of the ballad of Green Sleeves in the Registers of the Stationers' Company is in September, 1580, when Richard Jones had licensed to him, A new Northern Dittye of Lady Green Sleeves. The date of the entry, however, is not always the date of the ballad; and this had evidently attained some popularity before that time, because on the same day Edward White had a license to print, A ballad, being the Ladie Green Sleeves Answere to Donkyn his frende.

Within twelve days of the first entry of Green Sleeves it was converted to a pious use, and we have, Green Sleeves moralised to the Scripture, declaring the manifold benefites and blessings of God bestowed on sinful man; and on the fifteenth day Edward White had tollerated unto him by Mr. Watkins, a ballad intituled Greene Sleeves and Countenance, in Countenance is Greene Sleeves. By the expression tolerated instead of licensed, we may infer it to have been of questionable propriety.

Great, therefore, was the popularity of the ballad immediately after its publication, and this may be attributed rather to the merry swing of the tune, than to the words, which are neither remarkable for novelty of subject, nor for its treatment.

 --The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time: A History of the Ancient Songs, Ballads, and of the Dance Tunes of England Vol. 1, W. Chappell, 1855, pp. 227–228.

Greensleeves is a traditional English song of uncertain authorship. Many different lyrics have been written for the tune, one of the best known being the Christmas carol What Child Is This?. Many different arrangements of the song have been written, making it certain that no two versions of Greensleeves sound exactly the same. I've provided a relatively traditional arrangement for the guitar, derived from an old lute arrangement. The piece is in A minor and can be played entirely in the first position, making it ideal for beginning guitarists. Eventually, I'll transcribe the well-known Francis Cutting lute arrangement if I can find a public domain pre-copyright source to work from.

I based this version of Greensleeves on the version in Lautenspieler des XVI. Jahrhunderts. Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis des Ursprungs der modernen Tonkunst von Oscar Chilesotti.[1] (or in Italian Liutisti del Cinquecento) by Oscar Chilesotti as published by German publishing house Breitkopf & Härtel in 1891. It was originally published by Oscar Chilesotti as part of an article in Gazzetta Musicale di Milano, No. 14, April 7, 1889. I have not been able to locate Chilesotti's 1889 article, so all I know is what he tells us in Lautenspieler des XVI, which is that the music is from the lute book of William Ballet. According to The Lute in Britain: A History of the Instrument and Its Music, by Matthew Spring (Oxford University Press, Oct. 19, 2006), the Ballet lute book is composed of two different manuscripts that were not combined into a single bound book until after the 17th century. The earlier of the two manuscripts dates from about 1590 and the later one is from about 1610. The book is now kept at the Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland.

The lute music, as transcribed by Chilesotti from Ballet's lute tablature, is playable on the guitar without modification. I have, however, corrected some note durations, changed the final chord to two chords, and added fingering.

Actively Maintained LilyPond Output
Sheet Music

Revision History

Added repeat with 1st and 2nd endings.


Renotated using LilyPond, correcting some egregious left-hand fingering mistakes that must have been made when copying my earlier Finale version to Sibelius. I've retained the previous version generated with Sibelius for those who want tablature or wish to compare Sibelius and LilyPond output.

Unmaintained Sibelius Output
Sheet MusicSheet Music w/o Tablature

[1] The book title in English: Lutenists of the Sixteenth Century. A contribution to the knowledge of the origin of the modern art of music by Oscar Chilesotti. The song is listed as Green sleeves. Canzone populare inglese al tempo della Regina Elisabetta. The subtitle is explanatory and means A popular English song during the time of Queen Elizabeth.