Reprint of an article which first appeared in Folkwrite 14, 1983)

During my collecting of songs in Gloucestershire, I have found that one of the most popular pieces among country singers is the “Two (or three) Black Crows”.  In fact, from 1974 to 1978 I noted six different versions in various parts of the county.  A typical version is as sung by Charlie Clissold of Hardwicke, near Gloucester.

There were two crows sat on a tree
As black as black as crows cold be

Said one old crow unto his mate
‘What shall we have this day to ate?’

We’ll fly away to yonder barn
And fill our gutses up with corn

And when we’ve ate and flown away,
What will the poor old farmer say?

I’ll go away and get my gun
And I’ll shoot those buggers one by one

For the more I sows, the more I grows,
It’s all eaten by those bloody crows.

Perhaps some of its appeal is those resonant old English expletives in the last verse!  Note that Charlie’s tune is based on the old hymn tune, the “old Hundredth” and several of the other versions that I have use the same tune.  It was also sung in Gloucestershire to a version of the “Quartermaster’s Stores”, and in the following version, collected from Bob Cross of Witcombe, it was sung to the tune normally associated with “Ye Banks and Braes” or in East Anglia with “The Foggy Dew”.  This same tune was associated with the song in a Canadian version collected in 1950 in Nova Scotia.

(Each verse is first spoken and then sung)

There were three crows sat on a tree
And they were as black as crows could be – all sing.

And one old crow said to his mate
‘What shall we have this day for bait*?’  - all sing       *snack

They flew across the burning plain
To where an oxen had been slain – all sing

They perched upon his big backbone
And pecked his eyes out one by one – all sing

Along came a farmer with his gun
And shot them all, excepting one – all sing

And that old crow flew into a tree
And said you old bugger, you shan’t shoot me – all sing

The device of first speaking the words and then singing them occurs in other versions of the song.  I have heard it performed thus in West Sussex. Bob’s version shows older elements than Charlie’s and it’s worth tracing back the history of the song.  The first known version, dated 1611, is from Ravenscroft’s Melismata, where it was arranged for four voices,  The 1611 text ran:-

(Spelling has been modernised)

There were three ravens sat on a tree
Down-a down, hey down, hey down
There were three ravens sat on a tree
With a down
There were three ravens sat on a tree
They were as black as they might be
With a down, derrie, derrie, derrie down, down 

The one of them said to his mate
‘Where shall we our breakfast take?’

Down in yonder green field
There lays a knight slain under his shield.

His hounds they lie down at his feet
So well they can their master keep.

His hawks they fly so eagerly
There’s no fowl dare him come high.

Down there comes a fallow doe
As great with young as she might go

She lift up his bloody head
And kissed his wounds that were so red

She got him up upon her back

And carried him to earthen lake

She buried him before the prime

She was dead herself ere evensong time

God send every gentleman

Such hawks, such hounds and such a leman*    *lover/sweetheart

Various Scottish and North of England versions were collected in the early 19th Century, and the ballad was listed as number 26 in the collection of Frances James Child.  One Scottish version of about 1818 had the words:

We’ll sit upon his bonny breast bane
And we’ll pick out his bonny gray een

which is quite close to Bob Cross’ version and also to this graphic set of words from Tony Ballinger of Upton St Leonards, near

In yonder field there lies an ‘oss
And he is but three days dyud*                         *dead

We’ll tear the flesh from off his bones

And we’ll tear the eyes from out his yud*                     *head

 The songs seems to have faded from memory in England in the 19th Century, and in fact Cecil Sharp, the greatest of all English folksong collectors, did not come across it at all in England, although he noted several versions in America.  Bertrand Bronson, in his major work “The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads” stated that the song was widely known in America in “debased forms” and suggested that its popularity was due to its vogue in old minstrel shows.  It is possibly via America, then, that the song made its appearance in England.  I have recently discovered that a similar version to Charlie Clissold’s is current in the Royal Navy, so it seems as though the song is good for few years yet.  Bob Cross’ and Charlie Clissold’s versions can be heard on: