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Origins: Two Little Dickie Birds

Two little dickie birds. From

Two little dickie birds. From

Two little dickie birds
Sitting on a wall;
One named Peter,
One named Paul.
Fly away Peter!
Fly away Paul!
Come back Peter!
Come back Paul.

Mother Gooses Melody (1765) contains the first recognisable version of this popular nursery rhyme:

There were two blackbirds
Sat upon a hill,
The one was nam’d Jack,
The other nam’d Gill;
Fly away Jack,
Fly away Gill,
Come again Jack,
Come again Gill.

In Boston, Mass., 1883 the following verse appeared, published in The Only True Mother Goose Melodies, without addition of abridgement. Embracing, also, a reliable life of the Goose family, never before published*:

There were two birds sat upon a stone,
Fal de ral—al de ral—laddy
One flew away, and then there was one,
Fal de ral—al de ral—laddy
The other flew after, and then there was none,
Fal de ral—al de ral—laddy
So the poor stone was left all alone,
Fal de ral—al de ral—laddy
One of these little birds back again flew,
Fal de ral—al de ral—laddy
The other came after, and then there were two,
Fal de ral—al de ral—laddy.
Says one to the other, Pray how do you do,
Fal de ral—al de ral—laddy
Very well, thank you, and pray how are you,
Fal de ral—al de ral—laddy!

This verse clearly mimics the original narrative, though one can detect a hint of parody in it. The volume it comes from is a curious one, which claims Mother Goose  was a real person. After only brief study of it, I am still unable to tell if the geneological claims are meant in jest or earnest.

It is the first version that, in 1951, the inimitable Petula Clark bastardised for the sake of pop music.:

It is often suggested that Peter and Paul represent the apostles that share their names. Peter’s most (in)famous flight from Christ is his denial in Mark 14:

 29But Peter said unto him, Although all shall be offended, yet will not I. 30And Jesus saith unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. 31But he spake the more vehemently, If I should die with thee, I will not deny thee in any wise. Likewise also said they all.


66And as Peter was beneath in the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest: 67And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked upon him, and said, And thou also wast with Jesus of Nazareth. 68But he denied, saying, I know not, neither understand I what thou sayest. And he went out into the porch; and the cock crew. 69And a maid saw him again, and began to say to them that stood by, This is one of them. 70And he denied it again. And a little after, they that stood by said again to Peter, Surely thou art one of them: for thou art a Galilaean, and thy speech agreeth thereto. 71But he began to curse and to swear, saying, I know not this man of whom ye speak. 72And the second time the cock crew. And Peter called to mind the word that Jesus said unto him, Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. And when he thought thereon, he wept.

St. Paul’s claim to fame is as the recipient of the original Damascene conversion. Following his conversion, however, he flew away too.

17Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. 18Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.

Galatians 1

This is a neat explanation for the rhyme – both St Peter and St Paul became disciples of Christ then either figuratively or literally abandoned him before eventually returning. Another interpretation suggests that the wall upon which Peter and Paul sit represents the church, so that the rhyme

 …was created by the second true Christian church in the face of persecution by the Roman Catholic church which lead to the burning of their material and in particular of all true interpretations of Revelation. […] St. Peter and St. Paul, two born again, (angelic) Christian birds, both left their positions of authority in the first true Christian church after […] its corruption by Rome. [They then] joined the second true Christian church.

The pages which provide this interpretation would make the Plain English Campaign cry. Because of this, it’s difficult to decipher quite what the organisation they refer to as the ‘second true Christian church’ is (if you can enlighten me, please do), but it may be the Protestant church, which dates the events of the rhyme in the early 1500s.

It is unlikely that either of these interpretations are accurate, given the gaps between the events the rhyme supposedly commemorates (sixteen and two centuries respectively) and the first known publication. Both also ignore the discrepancy in names.

Many texts attempting to discover the origin and meaning of Two Little Dickie Birds note that the transition of Jack and Gill (or Jill) to Peter and Paul during the 19th century suggest, cryptically, that the names Jack and Gill were disliked for their pagan connotations. They do not, however, suggest what those might be*.

So, we have another rhyme with unclear origins and an unknown author. Perhaps it is intended to illustrate the cyclic nature of our lives, perhaps it is simple entertainment. Either way, the origins of Two Little Dickie Birds remain a mystery.

*Jack and Jill appear again in next weeks origins post. Perhaps the matter will be cleared up then.


3 responses »

  1. There’s a North-Eastern version bird counting song which I remember as a little girl:

    Three craws sat upon a wa’
    sat upon a wa’
    sat upon a wa’
    three crows sat upon a wa’
    on the last day of September

    The first craw up and flew awa’
    up and flew awa’ (etc)

    The second craw was greeting for his ma
    greeting for his ma (etc)

    The third craw wasn’t there at aa
    wasn’t there at aa (etc)

  2. I like! It’s reminiscent of ‘I saw Three Ships’ in its structure, and with the September business; is it sung to a similar tune?

  3. I may be mis-remembering the last line – it could just have easily been ‘on a cold and frosty morning’ or some other nursery rhyme refrain.

    I can’t watch videos at work so can’t find a version right now – will have a proper look later. Also found this which seems similar to your Mother Goose Melodies one:


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