Current Essays

The Cuckoo and the Child

A recent discovery of a new broadside ballad fragment

The cuckoo and the child

All the previously extant versions of this charming, though disquieting, ballad were collected in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from broadsheets and without music.

They are remarkably similar being, one supposes, merely yet another series of variations on the familiar 'Ah! Vous Dirai-je Maman', although the version that begins "The kumquat cooks in April" collected as a recipe from a certain William Archibald Spooner around 1900 is no doubt spurious, though delicious.

A recorded version from the early twentieth century sinning* of Miss Anglica Puce in the North of England was unfortunately lost when Alan Lomax, whilst wandering in the wilds of Northumberland, was forced to eat the tapes in order to survive.

This new version, discovered in B.Mus. Add. Mss. Elagabalus 9493405094982812395/2b by the author, includes the unique addition of a tune.

The words of our version (when modernized) are:

The cuckoo comes in April,
And from her treetop high
She spits at little children
Which causes them to cry.
Hhhwt! Pitoo! Boo! Hoo!
She got one in the eye!

As is so common with our traditional balladry we start suddenly in media res. We are not told why the cuckoo comes, nor (I suppose) are we expected to enquire—accipe is the watchword here.

Traditionally too we start with a brief invocation of the spring and its age-old harbinger: here we are straying into a trope at least as old as Middle English (“When þe nightegale singes... In Averil I wene...” or “When þat Aprille with his shoores swete...” etc.) and it succeeds in its task of lulling us into a false sense of security—here be no dragons, but only the pleasant anticipation of the joys of the coming season. Our sense of security survives the second line, but in the third we are plunged into a world of terror reminiscent of Hitchcock's film of du Maurier's The Birds. "Why, Oh! Why," we ask, "is this happening?" But eventually, after much soul searching we must admit that the act is essentially meaningless, and that in this lies its tragedy.

The gratuitous viciousness of the detail in the last line is best passed over without comment.

Cuculus canorus  cuckoospit

The ultimate origin of this ballad is surely to be found in the curious springtime coincidence of the concurrent appearance in England of the Cuckoo (cuculus canorus) and of the frothy secretions of the immature stages of sap-sucking insects known as froghoppers (Several species but mainly Philaenus spumarius), that are found in a variety of plants and are presumably produced as a means of protecting such larvae against predators.

The bird being the presumed progenitor of the froth led to the latter being called 'Cuckoo Spit', an appellation it retains to this day in rural areas of England. To this one supposed fact the overactive and underemployed mind of the rustic must surely be expected to have added the supposition that the cuckoo would not necessarily constrain its expectorant habits to mere foliage, with the tragic and messy results here recorded.

The dating of this piece is problematical. Analysis of the paper suggests a date of 1659 (and we put that forward as a terminus ad quem) and would additionally give it an origin in the south of England; however the text is set in a face that most closely resembles French exemplar of the late eighteenth century and the notation to much later printed materials. The only conclusion that we can draw is that the whole thing is a joke perpetrated (as is obvious from the apparent modus operandi) by the notorious Piltdown forger.


* No that is not an error, and I certainly don't want to discuss it here.

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