> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > The Bird in the Bush
> Frankie Armstrong > Songs > The Bird in the Bush
> Steeleye Span > Songs > Drink Down the Moon—The Cuckoo
> The Watersons > Songs > Three Pretty Maidens / Three Maids A-Milking

The Bird in the Bush
Drink Down the Moon—The Cuckoo
Three Pretty Maidens / Three Maids A-Milking

[ Roud 290 ; Ballad Index K191 ; Bodleian Roud 290 ; Wiltshire Roud 290 ; trad.]

The Bird in the Bush is a song from the repertoire of “Queen” Caroline Hughes. A recording from her made by Peter Kennedy in the 1950s will be issued by Topic on the anthology I'm a Romany Rai (The Voice of the People Series Volume) in March 2012.

Bob Copper recorded Fred Hewett singing Three Maidens to Milking Did Go on July 26, 1955 in the singer's home in Mapedurwell, Hampshire. This recording was included in 1977 on the Topic anthology Songs and Southern Breezes: Country Singers from Hampshire and Sussex and in 1998 on Who's That at My Bed Window? (The Voice of the People Series Volume 10).

A.L. Lloyd sang The Bird in the Bush in 1956 on his Tradition album The Foggy Dew and Other Traditional English Love Songs. He commented in the liner notes:

Men may keep alive love songs that women would allow to die. Usually the women's song is of the ecstasy or grief of love. The man's song, in England anyway, rarely sings of the heights and depths of love. Rather it looks the facts in the eye, and reports fairly objectively of the situation. Sometimes a spade is called a spade; sometimes it's called a bird in the bush. Also known as Three Maidens A-Milking Did Go, the song has often been printed, but always bowdlerised to make a piece of bumpkin quaintness out of what is one of the most sensuous of all English songs. Here, for a change, is how the song is sung by the folk who made it.

Frankie Armstrong sang The Bird in the Bush as the title track of the Topic Records theme album The Bird in the Bush: Traditional Erotic Songs by A.L. Lloyd, Anne Briggs and Frankie Armstrong. A.L. Lloyd wrote in the album's sleeve notes:

In poetry, as in dream, the bird may be a mild symbol of the penis as the rose, rosebush or bush is of the vulva. There's Lesbia's sparrow, Boccaccio's nightingale and, for the matter of that, the dove of the Annunciation. In the present song, common enough yet rarely reported in full, a young man with shadowed face meets a vivid trio of girls and goes with them into the woods where the leaves are thickest. The subsequent sociable action is simple and quiet, but the symbolic language and mysterious tune create a scene that is sensual in the extreme.

Anne Briggs recorded the song herself in 1973 but the ensuing album was shelved only to be released in 1996 as Sing a Song for You. She comments:

The delight in loving, the rural imagery, the heroic dismissal of public opinion and the bare simple tune, plus the fact that it was taught to me by Bert Lloyd makes this one of my favourite songs.

Shirley Collins learnt The Bird in the Bush from A.L. Lloyd too and recorded it in 1967 for her album The Sweet Primeroses.

Steeleye Span recorded this ballad as Drink Down the Moon for their sixth album, Now We Are Six; the first one with drummer Nigel Pegrum. Actually, the musicians were Maddy Prior: vocals; Peter Knight: violin, mandolin; Robert Johnson: electric guitar; Tim Hart: electric dulcimer, vocals; Rick Kemp: bass; and Nigel Pegrum: drums, oboe. To this track they added a second song, The Cuckoo, for good measure. This recording was also included in their compilation album Original Masters. Steeleye Span recorded this song a second time for the CD Present to accompany the December 2002 Steeleye Span reunion tour. Another Steeleye Span performance—live at Southampton Civic Hall on May 15, 2004—can be found on the DVD The 35th Anniversary World Tour 2004 and the limited-edition CD The Official Bootleg.

Lal and Norma Waterson sang this ballad as Three Pretty Maidens on the Watersons' album Green Fields and Norma Waterson sang it as Three Maids A-Milking on her solo album Bright Shiny Morning. A.L. Lloyd wrote in the former album's sleeve notes:

Rev. Baring-Gould got this version from three farm-workers of Lew Down, Devonshire. It's unusual in that the amorous get together of young man and young woman takes place in the presence of witnesses (in fact these all seem to be waiting their turn). There are many versions of this amiable song, some more explicit than others. When the parson first heard it, he thought it went a bit too far, and he re-wrote the song entirely. Later he got a bit more used to its saucy idea, and republished the song with its original words, “only slightly modifying them”. Frank Kidson had a Yorkshire version from near Leeds, but he jibbed at printing the words.

and Norma Waterson commented in her album:

From Queen Caroline Hughes. I first heard this song in the version sung by Anne Briggs in the early sixties and tried for years to find a version I liked. I think my favourite line is “Tonight I will get paid” (ker-ching!!)

Finally, Ougenweide played this as Drink Down the Moon on their album Sol.

Jon Boden learned Bird in the Bush from Steeleye Span and sang it as the February 19, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Charlie Bridger sang Three Maid a-Milking Did Go on the Veteran cassette of English traditional singers, The Horkey Load Vol. 1. This track was also included in 2001 on the Veteran anthology of traditional folk music from rural England, Down in the Fields. Mike Yates commented in the sleeve notes:

Printed frequently on Victorian broadsides, this is a song that caused the early collectors much soul-searching. Writing in 1891, Frank Kidson had this to say, “If not very old, it is good, and it could be wished that the succeeding verses to the first (the only one which I have printed), were equally meritorious and more suitable for this work.” (Traditional Tunes).

Luckily, singers were not so prudish, and the song has turned up repeatedly all over the place, Cecil Sharp, for example, noting eight versions from Somerset, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. Alfred Williams found it “existing in several forms” in the Thames Valley prior to the Great War (the version that he prints in his book Folk-Songs of the Upper Thames, 1923, seems to have been edited) and the Reverend Baring-Gould was sufficiently shocked by it that he felt compelled to rewrite the text as Here’s a Health to the Blackbird (in Songs of the West, 2nd ed. 1891-95).

Andy Turner who, besides Mike Yates, collected Three Maidens a-Milking Did Go from Charlie Bridger from Stone-in-Oxney in Kent, sang it as the March 9, 2013 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Said the Maiden sang The Bird in the Bush on their 2017 CD Here's a Health. They noted:

This is a rude song about three maidens… and birds… and bushes. We learnt it from the singing of Private Daniel Hagman.

Lyrics

Frankie Armstrong sings The Bird in the Bush

𝄆 Three maidens a-milking did go 𝄇
And the wind it did blow high and the wind it did blow low
And it waved their petticoats to and fro

𝄆 They met with some young man they know 𝄇
And they asked of him if he had any skill
For to catch them a small bird or two

𝄆 Oh yes I've a very good skill 𝄇
So it's come along with me to the yonder flowering tree
And I'll catch you a small bird or two

𝄆 So away to the greenwoods went they 𝄇
And he tapped at the bush and the bird it did fly in
Just a little above her lily-white knee

Then her sparkling eyes they did turn round
Just as if she had been in a swoon
And she cried “Oh, I've a bird and a very pretty bird
And he's pecking away at his own ground”

𝄆 Here's a health to the bird in the bush 𝄇
And we'll drink down the moon, and we'll drink up the sun
Let the neighbours say little or much

Anne Briggs sings The Bird in the Bush

𝄆 Three maidens a-milking did go 𝄇
And the wind it blow high and the wind it did blow low
It tossed their petticoats to and fro

𝄆 They met with a young man they know 𝄇
And they've asked it of him if he had any skill
To catch them a small bird or two

𝄆 Oh yes I've a very good skill 𝄇
And it's come away with me to the yonder flowering tree
And I'll catch you a small bird or two

So 𝄆 it's off to the greenwoods went they 𝄇
And he's tapped at the bush and the bird it did fly in
Just a little above her white knee

And her sparkling eyes they did turn round
Just as if she was in a swound
And she cried “Oh, I've a bird and a very pretty bird
He's a-pecking away at his own ground”

𝄆 Here's a health to the bird in the bush 𝄇
And we'll drink up the sun, and we'll drink down the moon
Let the neighbours say little or much

Shirley Collins sings The Bird in the Bush

𝄆 Three maidens a-milking did go 𝄇
And the wind it blew high and the wind it did blow low
And it waved their pails to and fro

Now 𝄆 they met with some young man they knew 𝄇
And they asked of him if he had any skill
In catching a small bird or two

Yes 𝄆 indeed, I've a very fine skill 𝄇
And if you'll come along with me to the yonder greenwood
I might catch you a small bird or two

So 𝄆 along to the greenwoods they went 𝄇
And the bird it flew in and the bird it flew out
Just a above her lily-white knee

So 𝄆 here's a health to the bird in the bush 𝄇
for the bird's of one feather, they should always lie together
Let the people say little or much

Steeleye Span's version of Drink Down the Moon / The Cuckoo

𝄆 Three maidens a-milking did go 𝄇
And the wind it did blow high and the wind it did blow low;
It tossed their petticoats to and fro.

𝄆 They met with some young man they know, 𝄇
And they boldly asked him if he had any skill
To catch them a small bird or two.

𝄆 Oh yes I've a very good skill, 𝄇
And it's come along with me to yonder flowering tree
And I'll catch a small bird or two.

So off to the greenwood went they
And it's off to the greenwood went they,
And he tapped at the bush and the bird it did fly in
A little above her lily-white knee.

Her sparkling eyes they did turn around
Just as if she had been all in a swoon,
And she cried, “I've a bird and a very pretty bird
And he's pecking away at his own ground.”

𝄆 Here's health to the bird in the bush, 𝄇
And we'll drink up the sun, we'll drink down the moon,
Let the people say little or much.

𝄆 There is a thorn bush in our kailyard; 𝄇
At the back o'thon bush there lays a lad and lass
And they're busy, busy fairing at the cuckoo's nest.

𝄆 Hi the cuckoo, ho the cuckoo, hi the cuckoo's nest, 𝄇
I'd give anybody a shilling and a bottle of the best
That'll rumple up the feathers in the cuckoo's nest.

It is thorn and it is prickle, it is compassed all around;
It is thorn and it is prickle, and it isn't easy found.
She said, “young man you blunder”, and I said it isn't true
And I left her with the makings of a young cuckoo.

𝄆 Hi the cuckoo, ho the cuckoo, hi the cuckoo's nest, 𝄇
I'd give anybody a shilling and a bottle of the best
That'll rumple up the feathers in the cuckoo's nest.

Lal and Norma Waterson sing Three Pretty Maidens

Three pretty maidens a-milking did go,
Three pretty maidens a-milking did go.
When the wind it did blow high and the wind it did blow low
And it tossed their milking pails to and fro

Then she met with a man that she did not know
Oh, she met with a man that she did not know
And she asked, have you the skill, and she asked, have you the will
To catch me a small bird or two?

Here's a health to the blackbird in the bush
Likewise to the merry ring-a-doo*
If you'll come along with me then in yonder greenwood tree
I will catch you a small bird or two

So I went till we stayed at a bush
We went till we stayed at two
And the pretty birds flew in, o, you know what I mean
And I caught them by one and by two

So whilst boys that we have our fun
We will all drink down the sun
We will tarry till we drink down the moon
As birds of one feather we will all flock together
Let people say little or none

Norma Waterson sings Three Maids A-Milking

Now as maidens a-milking we did go,
As maidens a-milking we did go.
And the wind it did blow high and the wind it did blow under
And it tossed our petticoats to and fro.

Well we met with a young man that we know,
We met with a young man that we know.
And I asked it of him, had he got any learning
For to catch me a little bird or so.

Oh yes I've a very good skill,
Oh yes I've a very good skill.
If you'll come along with me down to yonder flowering bushes
I will catch you a little bird or three.

Well we went till we came down to a bush,
We went till we came down unto three.
And the little bird flew in and you know just what I'm meaning
And I caught it a little by my right knee.

Here's a health to the birds all in the bush,
A health to the bonny rigadoon*,
For tonight I will get paid and tomorrow I will spend it
And go home by the light of the moon.

For tonight I will get paid and tomorrow I will spend it
And go home by the light of the moon.

* “a brisk dance, often performed out of doors” [English Dialect Dictionary]

Acknowledgements and Links

Thanks to Greer Gilman for the transcription of the Watersons' versions and the note about the rigadoon. And thanks to Terry Rigby for correcting some embarrassing typos.

See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Add: Three Maidens A-Milking Did Go.