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