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    “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” is throwback from childhood

    As soon as I saw the title “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” the little ditty started playing in my head:

    “Sing a song of sixpence,
    A pocket full of rye,
    Four and twenty blackbirds
    Baked in a pie.”

    My mind hummed the rest, filling in a word here and there that I remembered. I hadn’t thought about that song in a long time, but the birds were a pleasant reminder. I’m sure it’s one that many other Baby Boomers recall from their elementary-school years, like the many other songs that we all were taught.

    Two main characters from the ditty "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" on illustrated game card: a sixpence and a blackbird.

    Two main characters from the ditty “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” on illustrated game cards: a sixpence and a blackbird.

    This version of “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” was not a song but a game. It came with instructions on how to play it, along with cards featuring all of the characters from the song. The game seemed to be played like many others in which you matched cards. It was an old one, copyrighted in 1895 by Sophie Ringgold Maconochie.

    I always thought the song was titled “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” but learned that it’s actually “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” Its origin appears to be unclear – ranging from it being a pirate’s song to a parody of King Henry VIII and his wives. It is an English nursery rhyme that apparently dates back to the 1700s.

    In “Tom Thumbs Pretty Song Book,” published in 1744 by Mary Cooper, naughty boys were baked in pies in the song. By the 1780s, blackbirds had replaced boys. says it was used by the pirate Blackbeard to slyly put out the word that he was looking for crews to go out with him to plunder and take.

    An array of cards from the "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" card game.

    An array of cards from the “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” card game.

    In an interview with NPR in 2005, Chris Roberts, who had written a book about rhymes, offered another interpretation: It all had to do with Henry VIII, his second wife Ann Boleyn and his first wife Catherine of Aragon (whom he divorced to marry Boleyn). “And it’s telling the story – the first queen is off in the parlor, kind of out of the action and that the second queen, who Henry divorced and then executed, has her nose snipped off by the blackbirds, which here apparently represents the (Catholic) church.”

    Here are two breakdowns of what each verse meant in relation to Blackbeard and Henry VIII.

    Song birds baked in pies seemed to have had their origin in Medieval times. Food writer Steven Raichlen mentioned in an article that while researching medieval cookbooks some years ago, he came across a recipe for baking live birds in a pie. Here’s how he described it:

    “You made an enormous pie crust that had a wooden scaffolding inside, so it was in effect baked hollow. Then you cut a trapdoor in the bottom, you put live birds in the pie, cracked open the top, and the birds would come fluttering out through the dining room.”

    Two illustrated cards from the game show blackbirds emerging from a pie and the king counting his money.

    Two illustrated cards from the game, with blackbirds singing from a pie and the king counting his money.

    So, the birds were not cooked in the pie and somehow survived the hot oven. A thick pie crust was baked first, then the top was removed, live birds were placed inside, the top or “lid” was replaced, and the pie set on the table. Then the birds were released. This appeared to be more of a surprise gesture for parties rather than part of the actual meal.

    I’ve never seen live blackbirds in pies, but I did come across a collection of ceramic birds that were used to release steam in pies. They were called pie birds and they whistled when the steam was released. They were used quite often up until the 1960s and 1970s. The pie birds at auction came in various human and animal shapes. Most were bird forms and several were blackbirds – among the most popular and more widely made.

    The queen in her parlor, and the maid in the garden getting her nose snipped by a blackbird.

    Two illustrated cards from the game show the queen in the parlor and the maid in the garden.

    Here is the full blackbirds song. Can you hear it singing in your head?

    Sing a song of sixpence,
    A pocket full of rye,
    Four and twenty blackbirds
    Baked in a pie.

    When the pie was opened
    The birds began to sing—
    Wasn’t that a dainty dish
    To set before the king?

    The king was in the counting-house
    Counting out his money,
    The queen was in the parlor
    Eating bread and honey,

    The maid was in the garden
    Hanging out the clothes.
    Along came a blackbird
    And snipped off her nose.

    Instructions for the "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" game.

    Instructions for the “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” game.


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