The Willow Tree Quilt – by Bill Volckening
“Willow weep for me, willow weep for me,
Bend your branches down along the ground and cover me”
“Willow Weep for Me” was written and composed in 1932 by Ann Ronnell. It was performed by a long list of music legends—Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Wes Montgomery, and even Frank Sinatra. The first time I heard it, I was living in New Jersey and one of my friends was a singer. Her name was Jeanie Bryson, and she had just released an album that included the song. Jeanie’s soulful rendition of “Willow Weep for Me” was simply intoxicating. It’s been one of my personal favorites ever since.
I was recently reminded of my fondness for this song when I found a magnificent Willow Tree quilt in a Discovery Auction at Skinner. The quilt piqued my curiosity about willow trees as symbols, and as it turned out, the willow was much more important than I’d realized.
My friend, quilt historian and author Mary Bywater Cross let me borrow her copy of “Let Virtue Be a Guide to Thee: Needlework in the Education of Rhode Island Women, 1730-1830” by Betty Ring. There were several needlepoint samplers with willow trees in the book.
One sampler, made around 1800 by Mary Talbot, included a willow tree, with gracefully bent branches and individually rendered leaves on dangling branches. It was reminiscent of the way the tree was rendered in the Willow Tree Quilt. The embroidery was typical of the memorial works produced at Mary Balch’s school between 1800 and 1802, and several other examples from Balch’s school appeared in the book.
During this period, the willow tree, particularly the weeping willow, was a symbol of mourning. In ancient cultures, it appeared in mythology. Greek poet Orpheus carried willow branches on his adventures in the Underworld. In other cultures, the fast-growing willow was a symbol of fertility and new life. Around the time the quilt was made, Willow trees were prevalent in funerary art, particularly on carved gravestones in New England.
In the 1960s, James Deetz and Edwin Dethlefsen wrote a series of seminal articles about the archaeological study of Early American gravestones. In “Death’s Heads, Cherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries, they focused on gravestones in New England, and observed changes in the gravestones’ decorations, shapes and inscriptions.
The willow tree was one of the three primary motifs discussed, and the shift from death’s heads and cherubs to the urn-and-willow motif was thought to accompany an increase in secular religions such as Unitarianism and Methodism.
Adding to the intrigue of the willow tree was its medicinal qualities. Ancient texts from Assyria, Sumner and Egypt contained information about willow bark and leaves as a remedy for aches and fever. Hippocrates wrote about its medicinal properties in the fifth century BC, and Native Americans considered it a staple medical treatment. Willow tree bark is a rich source of the extract salicin, the main ingredient in aspirin.
Whitework is an ideal expression of neoclassicism. The all-white quilts with raised relief resemble the marble carvings in ancient sculpture and architecture. The Willow Tree Quilt is part of this tradition. It was made in the late 18th century, or possibly very early 19th century, and it came from an estate in Duxbury, Massachusetts. It is all white, stuffed work, and includes a center medallion with a large weeping willow tree. The tree is framed with laurel, surrounded by flowers and grapes, with a border that resembles the architectural detail of a cornice. Thick, white fringe was applied to three edges.
The inclusion of the initials “E.R.” and specific elements, such as grapes and forget-me-nots, may lead to a better understanding about the origins of the quilt. But even if nothing more is learned, the Willow Tree Quilt is clearly a monumental example of early American whitework. It is an elegant object, and rich with symbolism- and even though it was made more than 100 years before the world ever heard “Willow Weep for Me”, it sings that same soulful song.
Photography courtesy Bill Volckening.