The Unthanks and the Magpie song

I don’t know if the Magpie counting song exists outside England. It goes: 1 for sorrow, 2 for joy, 3 for a girl, 4 for a boy, 5 for silver, 6 for gold, 7 for a secret never to be told.

The Unthanks were on Jools Holland recently, singing Magpie. I could paint this post as an appreciation of different English accents (the Unthank sisters are from the Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria), but I think their gorgeous voices are enough of a reason to share the video:

In the old days, when you saw a magpie on its own, you were supposed to spit on the ground and then politely say, “Good morning Mr Magpie. How’s your wife and children?” Otherwise, like walking under a ladder or letting black cats wander across your path, you were asking for bad luck by offending the magpie’s sense of good manners.

If you’re reading this outside the UK, I’d love to know if magpies are thought of as lucky birds where you live.

i found a story about the writing of the song here. The songwriter is David Dodds.

“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.”

© Sing Better English, 2015


10 thoughts on “The Unthanks and the Magpie song”

    1. Hi GolNaran – that’s interesting. I wonder if crows seem more brutal when you see them out in the countryside. I know I wouldn’t like them if I were a shepherd. But I live in a town, so I only see them innocently striding around in the park or on the beach. I’ve never seen them kill anything or scavenge on dead animals, though I know that they do.

      I like the way crows walk. Whenever I see crows, I think of Mr and Mrs Crow and their experimental theatre group -‘The Caws of Art’ in Russell Hoban’s wonderful children’s book ‘The Mouse and His Child’. That memory makes me smile when I see them.


      1. Hi again GolNaran – I just found out that the English word for a group of ravens is an unkindness of ravens – so there must have been lots of people in England over the years who agreed with you! With crows, a group can be called a murder of crows or a parcel of crows!


  1. I don’t know any story about good luck or bad luck in México but we’d call “a magpie” to someone who speaks a lot annoying everyone.


  2. We don’t have magpies in Minnesota (at least none I’ve noticed) — but even the birds we *do* have aren’t much associated with luck. Just as well, I suppose: Most Americans lack the manners to greet another human, let alone a bird. Imagine the epidemic of bad luck we’d incur!


      1. What a wonderful and interesting article — thank you for that, Elaine! And to answer your question: Yes, we do in fact have crows by the bushel in Minnesota. And although we also have a rich native American / American Indian tradition in this state, most Minnesotans don’t know the lore — and certainly don’t have any superstitions or beliefs associated with those ancient stories. In fact, based on my observations I’d say most Twin Cities residents don’t notice birds at all, or think of nature beyond “What’s the forecast?” But thanks to you, my own crow encounters will now be just a little bit richer and better-informed. Thank you again!


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