The story behind the song – The Magpie

This sounds like an old song, at least the lyrics do. It was actually written in the 1960’s by English folkie David Dodds.

It uses an old nursery counting rhyme; one for sorrow, two for joy ……

In England, the magpie was seen as a dodgy customer. If you saw two, that was good, but if you only saw one that was bad. Superstitions sprang up giving you several options to deal with the solo magpie.

You could flap your arms, imitating a bird, and playing the part of the second magpie.

You could spit on the ground in front of you (this might be tempting during a live gig, but I’ve never done it).

Or you could shake your fist and shout ‘devil devil, I defy thee.’

The story goes that Dave Dodds had the idea for the song when he gave an old lady a lift, and she spat in his Jag every time she saw a magpie. Must have been an interesting journey.

The Magpie is the second song on the album Row Out to your ship of dreams. I had just changed the way I play it earlier in the year, to give more ‘swing’. Vocal harmonies are mine on the record as well, although they have been done live with close harmony based band Parryphonalia.

It’s easy to play (I basically play Am and Em, with a few runs and variants thrown in) and fun to perform. Some fans say it’s their favourite track on the CD.

There are several versions out there. Dave Dodds himself did a punk folk rock version with his band Red Jasper. Recently, fabulous band The Unthanks slowed it right down for a haunting version. If you want to listen to something along similar lines but sounding completely different, here’s the link to the theme tune for 1970s/80s children’s programme Magpie.

Here’s the lyrics to David Dodds’ original;


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

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


One’s for sorrow, Two’s for joy,
Three’s for a girl and four’s for a boy.
Five for silver, Six for gold,
And seven for a secret never told.

Devil, devil, I defy thee.
Devil, devil, I defy thee.
Devil, devil, I defy thee.

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 labor,
And she mocks us at our work.
She steals the egg from out of the nest,
And she can mob the hawk.

The priest, he says we’re wicket
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 always leave a little bit of meat
For the bird that’s black and white.

You can listen to and download my version of The Magpie on Bandcamp here and find out where I’m playing it next on my web site.


About Nigel Parry Music

Described by a radio presenter as; 'one of the finest traditional folk artists in NZ', Nigel Parry's unique mix of singer / songwriter, traditional and early folk music relies heavily on his vocal arrangements. Hailing from the UK, he was originally a rock singer and turned to folk music through friends, historical events and real ale. Nigel now lives near Wellington and in the last 4 years has performed at folk events and music venues around New Zealand, festivals and live on radio and in the UK, France and Canada.
This entry was posted in Ramdon music thoughts, Studio / recording, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The story behind the song – The Magpie

  1. Dave says:

    I know this song…….sung it a few times myself, so I has!


  2. Dave says:

    And with you quite a few times young Nige!

    Liked by 1 person

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