The composition is based on the folk tune "Dives and Lazarus", one of the folk songs quoted in Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite.
- "The Star of the County Down" (Ireland)
- "Gilderoy" (Scotland)
- "The Thresher"
- "Cold blows the wind"
- "The Murder of Maria Marten" (Norfolk)
Vaughan Williams composed the work on commission from the British Council to be played at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. The first performance was by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hallon 10 June 1939, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The other works premiered on that occasion were Arthur Bliss's Piano Concerto in B-flat, and Arnold Bax's Symphony No. 7.
Boult also directed the first UK performance in November 1939 in Bristol.
The folk tune was also arranged by Vaughan Williams as a hymn tune "Kingsfold," appearing as "O Sing a Song of Bethlehem," in The English Hymnal as "I Heard the Voice of Jesus say," (no. 574 in the original 1906 edition).