The relatively modern language and the notable lack of Scots language in Child's printed versions of this ballad suggest to me that it originated relatively recently in the more anglicised areas of southern Scotland around Edinburgh. It is certainly partially set in and around Edinburgh and wholly set in the 'South Countree', i.e., southern Scotland. Having scoured all of the O.S. maps of southern Scotland, the only surviving placename that comes anything near Hazelgreen is a small village a couple of miles west of Newton Stewart in Galloway called Hazlie Green (O.S. ref NX 387645). This lies only a few miles from Garlies Castle, long time the seat of the Stewarts of Galloway.
Older versions of the ballad imply that John was a younger son (and therefore not likely to inherit the title and lands) of a nobleman who was testing the fidelity of his future daughter-in-law. It was common practice for those sons not directly in line to be given minor titles accrued by earlier marriages in the family, or to prove themselves by being given smaller estates to manage, perhaps in this case Hazelgreen.
In most versions the girl protests that she can not marry the lord's son because she is of a much lower status than him and, while it was not unknown for a young noblemen to court a girl of lower status, it was highly unusual for his parents to approve of their marriage, let alone actually engage in bringing them together; however unequal marriages have long been a staple ingredient of traditional song and poetic licence may have crept in here.
Sir Walter Scott, when he appropriated one of the stanzas for his poem Jock of Hazeldean, set his poem firmly in Northumberland on the estate of the Errington family around Langley Dale not far from Hexham near Hadrian's Wall. Remnants of his Hazel Dean still exist just to the north of the Wall next to Errington Hill Head (O.S. ref NY 959698).
Clues to the date of the event? Well, as I have stated, the language is quite modern; there is no hint of any military action which is highly unusual for any Scots ballad of any antiquity; the lord felt free to wander around the lowlands searching near Edinburgh for his younger son's lover, free to ride into Edinburgh to go shopping, and then to fetch her home to her wedding with her lover.
The history of Scotland is a very violent and bloody one. Since records began the country appears to have been in an almost constant state of conflict, either with England or internally, without taking into account the bloody border frays which gave rise to many of the border ballads. Exceptions seem to have been the last five years of James II's reign and the following six years, c.1455-66. James IV's reign, 1488 -1513 was quite peaceful until the Battle of Flodden shattered the peace. The Union of England and Scotland under James VI saw the start of a more peaceful era, and it is the modern language and the pleasant theme of the ballad that impress me with the idea that, if the ballad is indeed based on real events like many of the other Scots ballads, it is probably set in the seventeenth century.
Professor Child may have had this in mind when he placed the ballad near the end of his collection in the midst of several dubious ballads, despite having included Buchan's version in his 1857 edition along with references to Kinloch's and Chambers' versions, but even then he used the phrase 'not satisfactory' to describe them.
The five versions of the ballad given by Child consist of his A version from Elizabeth Cochrane's songbook of about 1730, B from Kinloch's Ancient Scottish Ballads, 1827, C and E from Kinloch's manuscripts, and D, the rather silly, spurious version concocted by Buchan and rewritten, with bits from other versions, by Chambers.
On the whole the ballad is quite rare in the oral tradition. It has been collected in parts of North America, but all of the versions I have seen could easily derive ultimately from the versions given by Child. Greig collected a fragment in Scotland from Bell Robertson which derives from the spurious Buchan version, but gives no other versions. I strongly suspect that much of Robertson's large repertoire of recited ballads derives from the early nineteenth century published collections.
An interesting version is given in volume two of Andrew Crawfurd's Collection of Ballads and Songs (No.117) collected from Mrs Macqueen in 1827. Unlike the Child versions this has been heavily Scoticised but Crawfurd applied this to all of his ballads. It has lines in common with all of Child's versions but has largely been rewritten, possibly by Crawfurd. It adds nothing to the story in Child's A,B,C and E versions but covers the main points of the story.
The version given here was printed on a broadside by Webb and Millington of Leeds who were printing c.1840-50 and a copy can be found on the Bodleian Library Website, Firth Collection b26 (534). This is the only version I know of on a British broadside. Though scarce in this country, it perhaps is not so unusual that it should turn up in Leeds in the 1840s. A Scotsman having resided in Leeds for some years could easily have come into contact with a local printer or one of his hacks (providers of doggerel verse) and have passed on his part-remembered verses. What is unusual here is that none of them attempted to restore the ballad's rhyme scheme or supply missing lines. Perhaps the printer was aware that antiquarians were even then collecting these ballad sheets and on the lookout for anything unusual.
The only other version I have seen in which John has become Willie comes from New Brunswick, discovered in 1929 (version 27 in Bronson) and this text has many points of similarity with the broadside, both being quite different to other American and Scots versions. It is also significant that there is nothing in either version to suggest that the ballad is set in or came from Scotland. In fact there are points to suggest that the American version may have had an Irish influence.
Some of what I have stated here is pure conjecture and opinion, but if it provokes further discussion and criticism then it has served its purpose, i.e., if anyone can pick out flaws in my thesis please pass them on to the editor as this research is ongoing.
The out of place line that commences stanza five in our broadside version has been invented to explain what is obvious in fuller versions and lacking here.
As I walked one evening all for to take the air,|
I heard a charming fair maid heave a sigh and a tear,
I drew a little nigher to her to hear what she could mean,
And all that she lamented for was Willey of Hazle Green.
What ails you, what ails you, my charming maid, that you mourn so near the tide,
You might be a bed-fellow to either lord or king,
So cheer up your heart, my charming maid, and come along with me,
I'll marry you to my eldest son, and happy you shall be.
When there you will get nothing but mistress or madam,
So cheer up your heart, my charming maid, and come away to him;
For to be called mistress or madam my breeding is so mean,
I'd far rather be a bride to Willey of Hazle Green.
What is he, what is he, this Hazle Green, I wish I could see him,
He is one of the cleverest young men that ever your eyes did see,
His arms long, his shoulders broad, he is fair to be seen,
And his hair hangs down like links of gold, and he's my Hazle Green.
O I am that Hazle's father that's come to look for thee,
He mounted her on a milk-white steed, himself on a silver grey,
And there they rode along the road the length of a long summer's day,
Until they came unto a fine building wherein the young man dwelt,
Outslipt a clever and clean young man, and his name was Hazle Green.
He kiss'd her once, he kiss'd her twice, before he set her down,
And now she is wed to her own true love, sweet Willey of Hazle Green.
Packie Manus Byrne's version of Johnny o' Hazelgreen, recorded by Mike Yates in 1964, is on MT Records' The Birds Upon the Tree CD (MTCD333). Here's his text and, in the notes below, his account of it's provenance: