The Cuckoo Song

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What songs do you remember from school? Swedes – the Swedes of my acquaintance – remember many. They sing them too, on special occasions. Midsummer is one special occasion and at Midsummer this year I was invited to contribute to the sing-along with some English school summer songs.

Some? My mind went blank.

Offhand, I could only think of two school singing classes. The first one, that time in my kindergarten when we stood in a row to sing to visiting parents about the winter wind and “What will poor robin do then, poor thing?”

(Answer: “He’ll sit in the barn, and keep himself warm, and tuck his head under his wing, poor thing.” With gestures.)

The second time was in junior school. Our music teacher got to play on a church organ while my class sat behind him. Playing enthusiastically he called out, “Sing up, boys!” as he drowned us out. It had a very fine volume, that organ. It wasn’t something you could really sing over the top of. At least, not if you were 10 year old boys ignorant of church music and not keen on singing.

The poor robin song was hardly appropriate for Midsummer. I couldn’t remember what we were supposed to be singing to the organ music. So I got a pass and wasn’t required to sing anything at that point.

The Very Model of a Cuckoo Superstar

Later, after the immediate stress of being asked and not being able to think of a single song, I did remembered the music teacher at my last (secondary) school. He was keen on musicals. Had us singing songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and by WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. (An interesting combination now I think of it.)

I thought I might be able to offer, perhaps, a verse of “Jesus Christ, Superstar”. Or “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”. But again neither are really what you would call summer songs.

Later still, long after the party and on my way home, it came back to me that I had once sung a summer song – or at least a spring song – in a school music class. It was taught by a music teacher who came between the stage musical aficionado and the organ enthusiast. He might have been a Catholic monk. (One of the schools I attended for a period was run by the De La Salle teaching order.)

The song I remember as “The Cuckoo Song”.

The Cuckoo Song

Sitting on the bus on my way home, dredging my memory, I came up with something about maidens bleaching their summer frocks and …

The cuckoo now on every tree,
pipes his soft note for thus sings he;
Cuckoo, cuckoo. Oh notes so clear,
so pleasing to a listener’s ear.

I thought it might be Shakespeare.

I’m rather glad I didn’t remember any of this in time to try and sing it. When I checked, when I searched on-line and then in my copy of Shakespeare’s Collected Works, I discovered something rather different from what I remembered.

It is Shakespeare, but Shakespeare’s are not the words we sang. The version the teacher taught us must have been Bowdlerised. Sanitised. (Which would fit in with him being religious.) This is the original verse and refrain. It comes from the end of Love’s Labours Lost.

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
And merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

Picture of a Common Cuckoo perched in a tree with a burred background.
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus

Picture acknowledgement: Ron Knight and Wikimedia Commons

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