Timeless Ditties about Birds

mockingbird

“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Pappa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.” Thus starts the classic lullaby. It’s one of the first songs many people ever hear. It’s also one of the oldest.

Orally transmitted, “Hush, Little Baby” was first documented in 1918.1 However, the tune may have much earlier origins, going back to a time when mockingbirds were more common as pets. The creatures were prized as caged songbirds through the 1800s. Praising the singing abilities of mockingbirds over nightingales, John James Audubon noted the popularity of the former as household pets in the United States.2 Among the owners of mockingbirds, Thomas Jefferson appears to have been the most famous. He kept several, including a favorite named “Dick.”3

Mockingbird Mania

Some rather old but well-known lyrical songs have mockingbird themes. For instance, in “Listen to the Mockingbird” (1854), the feathered virtuoso provides comfort and fond remembrances of a deceased loved one. Then there’s Irving Berlin’s “Ragtime Mockingbird” (1912), which consists of a lover’s playful plea for her very own winged music-maker:

Honey, if you buy for me that mockingbird,
I’ll call you names like King Louis the Third,
If you buy for me that ragtime mockingbird.4

A perennial muse of songwriters, this little avian wonder appears later in hits such as “Mockin’ Bird Hill” (1951), “Mockingbird” (1963), “One for the Mockingbird” (1987), and even a 2005 single by the rapper Eminem. (By the way, a post on some rock-era compositions featuring bird-inspired lyrics is available here.)

More Music from the Days of Yore

Lots of old-timey tunes exist that make either literal or metaphorical references to birds. “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” (1900), for example, is a song about the miserable outcome of marrying for money rather than for love.5 The Parlor Songs Academy website offers an extensive look at the bird-related recordings of the Tin Pan Alley period. There, among the avian fare represented in American music history, one will find numbers about the cuckoo, crow, robin, whippoorwill, and a few others.

Several archaic ditties familiar to U.S. audiences have roots outside the country. One of these is “The Cutty Wren,” an old English folk song related to the Wren Hunt tradition in parts of Scotland and Ireland.6 Chumbawamba, the British band best known for its 1997 hit “Tubthumping,” recorded a version of it. Here in the States, an even older song from England is “The Cuckoo” (also “The Coo Coo”) (1769),7 a classic that has since been covered by the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, Donovan, and many others.

A quick search on YouTube and music websites will turn up versions of many such tunes—as well as recordings of actual bird calls and songs, such as that of the northern mockingbird here from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, there’s no need to buy mockingbirds (which, if you’re curious, is illegal), cuckoos, or any other bird. Just go online or, better yet, venture outside!

Sources:

  1. “Hush, Little Baby.” Folklore home page of California State University, Fresno: https://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/SBoA164.html. (Note that variations of this tune exist, some for instance using “Mamma” and others “Pappa.”)
  2. Audubon, JJ. “John J. Audubon’s Birds of America: Plate 21: Mockingbird.” National Audubon Society: https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/mocking-bird.
  3. “Mockingbirds.” Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.: https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/mockingbirds.
  4. Kimball, R, Emmet, L (editors). The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. p. 48.
  5. Tyler, D. Hit Songs, 1900–1955: American Popular Music of the Pre-Rock Era. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2007. pp. 9–10.
  6. “The Cutty Wren.” Folklore home page of California State University, Fresno: http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/DTcutywr.html.
  7. “The Cuckoo.” Folklore home page of California State University, Fresno: http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/R049.html.

 

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13 thoughts on “Timeless Ditties about Birds

  1. Very interesting post, and thanks to the link to Cornell. I’ve visited it in the past, but had forgotten how much I enjoyed browsing there and listening to different sounds and calls. Thanks for this fascinating glimpse into history.

  2. In my case, it’s not even necessary to go outside to enjoy a mockingbird. I have one who has returned this year (I like to imagine it’s the same, since its behavior is similar) and who serenades me every morning: at 4:00 a.m. or so. My, they can be loud. If the windows are open, he wakes me, and if they’re closed and the AC is on, I still can hear him.

    The best one ever was the mocker who led me on a days’ long hunt to find the mallard in the trees a few years ago. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my “duck” wasn’t a duck at all, but a mockingbird imitating one of our local mallard females. He had the sound down pat.

    1. Opening the windows is another way to catch some good AM (avian modulation?) “radio,” especially in the early mornings. 🙂 Right now, we have an eastern towhee calling. One of the mockingbirds around our house recently imitated a catbird. But a mallard—wow, that’s impressive! Mockingbirds supposedly can even mimic car keypad tones and cell phone rings, but I have yet to experience that. I don’t doubt it, though; they are quite amazing. Thanks for sharing that story.

  3. …and if that mockinbird don’t sing, Pappa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.” Perhaps in this instance, Pappa is one’s sugar daddy! The other “Hush Little Baby, don’t you cry […..] all my trials, Lord, soon be over” song is a lovely ballad, but I can’t sing it for you right now, yet I’m quite sure you know which one…it was very popular. Loved hearing the mockingbird calls on the Cornell site…sweet!

    1. Janina, I’m not familiar with that version. Very interesting, though. I am glad you enjoyed the post and the Cornell site. I hope things are going well in Australia.

      1. PS: I enjoyed your wife’s doodle and am intrigued by the price tag hanging off that foot! Is that the cost to hear the mockingbird sing…?!! My version of the mockingbird song was not a lullaby, as you can imagine. I’m trying to remember, but I think I first heard it in a Melbourne jazz club in my youth; you know, those sorts of places that were smoky and small and we all drank whisky or very black coffee! All part of the experience of growing up. As for Australia, well, I don’t know…we have a federal election on july2 and, frankly, I’m not enamoured of any of our politicians or policies. Yours is becoming more interesting…

      2. We were just playing around with the price tag. “Priceless” was considered, but I settled on “$100.” I have no idea, though, how much people centuries ago paid for them. Probably less than the asking price of a diamond ring back then! (I liked your joke about the sugar daddy.)

      3. Priceless is what I too would’ve chosen! Stuffed birds were at a premium during the Victorian era, but I’m not sure I would have had one; prefer to see the real thing! As for my joke, well, was it, really…?!! *wink

  4. Thanks for sharing the histories of Mockingbirds and Wrens. Everyday human life changes so much with the passing of 100s of years! I saw a few Mockingbirds when I was in Mesa, Arizona. I don’t remember hearing them sing… maybe because it was December.

    1. “And if that mockingbird won’t sing . . .” 🙂 Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The ones around our house are not as vocal as other species. Of course, since mockingbirds are rare in Canada, I am glad that you got to see one in Arizona. Oh, BTW, I really loved your recent Draw A Bird Day illustration. I’m wowed by the level of detail you captured on that hummingbird.

  5. Hehe :-D! Like the song says, not all mockingbirds are big singers. Now I know :-).

    Thanks for the lovely compliment on my hummingbird drawing. I had fun approximately drawing in all the feathers. I’m glad the hummingbird treated me to a close look when I took his picture.

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