Remembering the Old Songs:

Herod and the Cock

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, November 1997)

Last month Lyle gave us a well-known old ballad, The Wife of Usher's Well. But, as often happens when British ballads come to America, a few bits and pieces got lost along the way.

This is the story of one of those pieces.

It's an incident known as The Roasted Cock, and it shows up in at least three ballads, all religious, all apocryphal, and all supernatural: Saint Stephen and Herod, The Wife of Usher's Well, and The Carnal and the Crane.

In plots of this sort, somebody usually expresses disbelief. There's always a roasted cock sitting on the table somewhere (very convenient, isn't it? Maybe you can only be a skeptic if you eat a lot of poultry), and the disbeliever says, "Before that will happen, this cock will come to life and start crowing." This being folklore, naturally, the cock does come to life and very nearly crows its head off.[1]

In "The Wife of Usher's Well," the person told off is the dead infants' mother. But in both "Saint Stephen and Herod" and the piece given here, the person who gets told off is none other than that infamous villain, King Herod, famous to us for trying to kill Jesus and famous to his contemporaries for being Jewish and for killing his favorite wife and three of his sons.[2] "Saint Stephen and Herod" is almost completely lost (it survives in one collection from New England plus a manuscript copy so old that it still uses the runic th, thorn [þ]).

The history of "The Carnal and the Crane" (Child #55) is more complicated. This long ballad included a number of stories from the apocryphal gospels, including the Adoration of the Beasts and the Miraculous Harvest (in which the baby Jesus tricked his pursuing enemies by raising a miraculous crop and having the farmer say that Jesus came by when it was sown).

This piece did not do well as an entity; it was just too long. Instead, it broke up into fragments. It's almost like it was made out of Lego blocks; you could take apart the pieces and put them back together in almost any order.

The one that seems to have done best is the tale of Herod and the Magi; I've seen it in isolation under the title "Herod and the Cock" as well as in fuller versions under the title "King Pharim."

I must admit that I don't know of any American collections of this piece. There are none listed in either Bronson or the Ballad Index. I have an American recording (by Roberts & Barrand), but it's a British version. I also have a text published in America (by Irwin Silber), but I have no idea where he found it.

But the song sounds old-time to me, at least in the version I hear in my head. And since I needed a Christmas song that tied in with Lyle's piece last month, this was the obvious choice. If in fact "The Carnal and the Crane" never crossed the water, maybe we should give it a little help. At least this version is short....

Musically the piece works well on almost any instrument. If you don't like all those E minor to G chord switches in the first lines, just drop them; you can play E minors all the way through. In fact, that works better for melodic picking.

Those of you looking for songs for odd holidays, by the way, should note that this is one of the few old-time songs that might be usable as an Epiphany piece. But best to get busy; we're getting close to the season....

1. If you decided to spring for a premium bird, it even crowed words -- usually "Christus natus est," Latin for "Christ is born."

2. The Emperor Augustus Cæsar was reported to have remarked that it was safer to be Herod's swine (hyn in Greek) than his son (Greek huion).
Herod and the Cock

Complete Lyrics:

There was a star in David's land
In David's land appeared,
And in King Herod's bedroom
So bright it did shine there.

The wise men soon espied it
And told the king on high
That a princely babe was born that night
No man could ever destroy.

"If this be true," King Herod said,
"As you've been telling me,
The roasted cock that's in the dish
Shall crow full fences three."

Well the cock soon feathered and thrustened well
By the work of God's own hand.
Three times the roasted cock did crow
In the dish where he did stand.


Readers wishing to examine the traditional forms of this song are advised to check the three versions in Bronson (Child #55). There are also three settings of The Carnal and the Crane in the Oxford Book of Carols (OBC 53, The Carnal and the Crane; 54; King Herod and the Cock; 55, The Miraculous Harvest). A readily accessible version, very similar to the one here, can be found in Irwin Silber's The Season of the Year. Other versions can be found under the various titles listed in the Oxford Book or under the name King Pharim."

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