Current Essays

The Cuckoo and the Child On:2006-09-08 04:17:47

Not to be outdone by those damned German chappies who discovered a new Bach autograph, we have ourselves recently discovered a new broadside ballad fragment “The Cuckoo and the Child”.

All the previously-known extant versions of “The Cuckoo and the Child”, a 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.

We should, in addition, note that a putative recorded version from the early twentieth century sinning1 of Miss Anglica Puce in the North of England was unfortunately lost when Alan Lomax, whilst wandering in the wintery wilds of Northumberland, was forced to eat the tapes in order to survive.

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

The cuckoo and the child

The words of our version are of course:
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 being the watchword here.

Traditionally too we start with a brief invocation of the spring and its age-old harbingers: 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... and the smalle fowles...” 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 ornithological 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.

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 Philænus 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 confine its expectorant habits to mere foliage, with the tragic and messy results here recorded.

The dating of this piece is problematical. Analysis of its 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 on me (as is obvious from the apparent modus operandi) by the notorious Piltdown forger.

Cheerio for now
Richard Howland-Bolton


1Angelica Puce
"twentieth century sinning..." No that is not an error, and it's certainly not something I want to discuss here.

<-- Go Back

Home | Essays | Notes | Gallery | Miscellany | Contact

ÐISCLAIMER - I claim ðis!

All contents including writing, cartooning, music, and photography unless otherwise specified are
copyright © 1965-2023 and Richard Howland-Bolton. All Rights Reserved.
All logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.
Web work* by
*as distinct from Wetwork