Magpie songs

There were seventeen magpies on the roof of a house. Seventeen, never before have I seen so many magpies gathered together. Perhaps an evolutionary adaptation is taking place. Perhaps with the increasing incursions of scavenging gulls, the magpies that survive will be those with a capacity for collective action.

I could find no version of the magpie song that went up to seventeen birds.

Those of a certain age will remember the theme tune of the ITV children’s programme, Magpie. Intended to be a rival to the BBC programme Blue Peter, it never seemed as interesting to an earnest little boy who would sometimes sit and watch it. Both programmes had very distinctive theme tune. Blue Peter had a sailor’s hornpipe, while Magpie had an English folk song dating back to at least the Eighteenth Century.

The Magpie tune was accompanied by lyrics that are easily recalled fifty years later:

One for sorrow, two for joy,
three for a girl, four for a boy,
five for silver, six for gold,
seven for a secret, never to be told.

A book of Somerset folklore revealed that the superstitions attached to the bird, and the songs sung about it, were less sanguine than the catchy song on the television:

Magpies are the rustic’s augur bird. If you see a magpie on your right hand as you go to market whatever business you do first will be very lucky. If it is on your left, turn round and go home, for nothing will prosper with you that day. If you see a single magpie when you are on a journey spit over your left shoulder to break the ill luck. An onion however, carried in the pocket will make this unnecessary, and the bird is only unlucky when one is travelling alone. A magpie perched on the house is unlucky, it brings illness to the hale and death to the sick.

A Somerset version of the song that was the origin of the Magpie television theme tune was overheard being sung by a carter boy in about 1890.

One is sadness, two is joy,
three a girl and four a bouy,
five a wedding, siz a loss,
Pyatt, don’t’ee steal my hoss.

“Pyatt” was the dialect word for a magpie, “py” being from “pie,” the French name for the bird, and “att” being a diminutive term.

The carter’s version of the song seems very different in its tone from the words of the theme tune. It has sadness, bereavement and theft in its lines.

Has sanitising songs been a modern development?

Magpie was first broadcast in 1968 and it was obviously thought necessary to adjust the lyrics of its theme tune. Five decades on from its airing, children no longer learn the rhymes of the past, or, if they do, they learn versions from which anything considered unpleasant has been excised by adults who fail to realize that children relish the gory and the macabre.

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