Following his defeat at Worcester in 1651, Charles II had to flee England in disguise. During this long and dangerous escape, he spent a day hiding in an oak tree while Parliamentarian soldiers searched the surrounding woods.
On the 29th of May 1660, Charles returned from exile and rode into London, where he was welcomed by a great, jubilant crowd. The monarchy was restored, and those who were glad to have their king back took to wearing a sprig of oak on the anniversary of Charles’s return to commemorate the tree in which he had hidden from his pursuers.
May 29th remained a public holiday, known as Oak Apple Day, until 1859. People seen not sporting oak leaves might find themselves whipped with nettles to the cry of ‘shick shack’ – a milder version of a rather vulgar old epithet.
Oak Apple Day is still celebrated in St Neot, Cornwall, though I don’t believe they go for the whipping, or call each other ‘sh*t sack’.
This was the first of the songs on ‘Calendar’ to be written. My writing partner Mavis Jackson had the idea of making an album of folk songs about traditions from each month of the year (see my post ‘The ‘Calendar’ Concept’), and as it was May when we started writing the album together, we began with that month.
We already knew about Charles hiding in an oak tree, of course, but we didn’t know the details of his flight from England, or about Oak Apple Day. The whole story captivated us and we went far beyond the requirements of our song by tracking down old editions of ‘The Flight Of The King’ by Allan Fea, to immerse ourselves fully in the story. Fea’s book was first published in 1897; my copy doesn’t say when it was printed, but it bears many library stamps dating back to 1959. In addition to Fea’s retelling of Charles’s adventures, the book reproduces five 17th century accounts of the episode, rich in compelling details.
The style and feel of ‘Shick Shack’ represent what we at that stage thought the whole album might sound like. The verses are factual, linear, and tell a story. There are lots of them: six, in fact. The chorus is very singable (we were thinking of folk clubs, song circles, etc.), and the music is uncomplicated (only five chords in the whole thing – and they’re among the first few that guitarists usually learn: G, C, D, Em, Am).
To carry on like that would have produced a very different album, and would have given me less to write about here, so while I like this song, I have to say I’m glad we rapidly broadened our harmonic compass. The second song we wrote for the album was ‘The Heart Of The Year’ – see its article for comparison.
A point of possible interest to songwriting students is our use of the song’s title at both the beginning and end of the chorus. It really ties a song together, that device, particularly when the chorus is a little bit wordy, as this one is.
Shick shack, shick shack,
Today’s the day King Charles came back
And all the jolly, merry folk
Will wear a bonny sprig of oak
Shick shack, shick shack,
Today’s the day our Charles came back
And those who do not love our King
Are soon to feel the nettles’ sting
We’ll pull their hats, give them a whack
Shick shack, shick shack
To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.