> Folk Music > Songs > The Magpie

The Magpie

[ Roud - ; Mudcat 285 ; David Dodds]

Jim Mageean and Johnny Collins sang The Magpie at The Herga Folk Club on 8 February 1982. This recording was released in the same year on their Sweet Folk and Country album Live at Herga!.

Paul and Liz Davenport sang The Magpie in 2008 on their Hallamshire Traditions CD Songbooks. They commented in their liner notes:

Compiled from a selection of magpie superstitions. Most counties have a magpie counting rhyme. Although one of our most handsome birds, the magpie has a sinister reputation. Shakespeare mentions, “portents from maggot-pies and choughs” showing how long these beliefs have been held.

The Demon Barbers learned The Magpie “from a singer in a folk club” and recorded it in 2010 for their CD The Adventures of Captain Ward.

This is a video of the trio The BlueBirds singing The Magpie in Barna Woods, Galway in 2014. I don’t know anything more about them:

The Unthanks sang Magpie on their 2015 CD Mount the Air and on their 2020 CD Diversions Vol. 5: Live and Unaccompanied. This video shows them at the Music Meeting in Nijmegen on 7 June 2014:

Sound Tradition sang Magpie in 2017 on their CD Well Met, My Friend. They noted:

Apparently, David Dodds had given a lift to an old lady who insisted on quoting: “Devil, devil, I defy thee”, and spitting of the floor of his new car every time she saw a magpie (a traditional response to counteract the bird’s supposedly evil effect). Understandably, it didn’t go down too well. However, it resulted in this wonderful song. A well-known superstitious rhyme is used as a chorus; also included are many widely held folk beliefs about the bird.

We base our version of this on the arrangement performed by the Unthanks, complete with crunchy harmonies and harmonium drone.


Sound Tradition sing The Magpie

Chorus (after every other verse):
One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three for a girl and four for a boy.
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret never told.
Devil, devil, I defy thee.
Devil, devil, I defy thee.
Devil, devil, I defy thee.

Oh, the magpie brings us tidings
Of news both fair and foul;
She’s more cunning than the raven,
More wise than any owl.

For she brings us news of the harvest
Of the barley, wheat, and corn.
And she knows when we’ll go to our graves
And how we shall be born.

She brings us joy when from the right,
Grief when from the left.
Of all the news that’s in the air
We know to trust her best.

For she sees us at our labour,
And she mocks us at our work.
And she steals the egg from out of the nest,
And she can mob the hawk.

The priest, he says we’re wicked
To worship the devil’s bird.
Ah, but we respect the old ways
And we disregard his word.

For we know they rest uneasy
As we slumber in the night;
And we’ll always leave a little bit of meat
For the bird that’s black and white.