Last month, there were several sightings of a fox on and around the grounds of the Capitol complex, where the Library of Congress is located. Also, sadly, the wonderful American folksinger Pete Seeger died, and I wrote about him for this blog. These two events both made me think of the old folksong often just known as “The Fox,” and more formally referred to as “The Fox and the Grey Goose.” It was one of Pete’s favorites, and it’s one of mine too.
“The Fox” tells the simple story of a fox who attacks a farmer’s birds. In most versions, he is spotted by the farmer’s wife and chased away by the farmer himself, but gets away with a duck or a goose. Although it often sounds thoroughly modern, it is in fact one of the oldest folksongs we have in English. The earliest texts are in Middle English and come from the 15th century. As a scholar who studied medieval literature before earning a PhD in folklore, I find the song fascinating because of its age, its currency in tradition, and the timelessness of its story.
The American Folklife Center’s collections include many versions of this classic folksong. Currently, two of these versions are online. “Old Fox Steppin’ Out,” sung by Minnie Floyd, can be found here, as part of AFC’s presentation Southern Mosaic. “Old Daddy Fox” was collected by the BBC in England from singer and melodeon player Cyril Biddick, and given to John Lomax’s son Alan for inclusion in an anthology of English folk music. It came to AFC in 2004, as part of the Alan Lomax Collection, comprising the materials Alan collected after leaving the Library in 1943. It can be heard at this link, and a catalog record can be viewed on the website of Alan’s organization, the Association for Cultural Equity.
There are two surviving medieval texts of “The Fox.” Each exists in a unique Middle English manuscript, and each is preserved as a text with no tune. They were not published until the 1950s, and were not recognized as related to the later folksong until the early 1960s. Because of this, there isn’t a lot of scholarship on the relationships between the medieval and modern texts. I plan to give a paper on the topic later this year. In the meantime, I’ll offer some observations here.
One of the medieval texts, which you can see at this link, begins with the Fox saying “pax vobis,” which means “peace to you” in Latin. The rest of the song, however, is in English, and it has generally been considered closer to modern versions than the other medieval text, because it has the same metrical structure and rhyme scheme as the modern song. It even contains some of the same rhymes as modern versions, such as “yard-feared-beard.” (This trio of words rhymed better in Middle English than in modern Standard English, but it was preserved in some song versions anyway!)
The medieval version known as “The Fals Fox,” whose text is online here, preserves some of the same rhymes, including “yard-feared.” Other than that, it seems more distant from the modern song on the surface, especially since it has a different meter and rhyme scheme. However, like many modern versions, it includes a phonetic rendering of the bird’s distress call after it is caught by the fox. In modern texts, this can be “quack quack quack” or “quiver-quiver-quack,” but in the medieval version it is the amusing Latin-sounding nonsense word “wheccumquek.” Also, this text preserves the plot of most modern versions better than the other medieval text: the fox is spotted first by the woman of the house, and then chased by the man, who attempts to kill the fox with a flail but misses, “smiting” him instead “vpon the tayle.” This episode is preserved in many modern versions by having the man shoot at the fox or blow a hunting horn, which hastens the fox’s retreat. In a few versions, such as this one sung by Freda Palmer on the Musical Traditions website, the farmer succeeds in killing the fox, but in most the animal gets away to celebrate with his family in their cozy den.
The medieval versions of “The Fox” include features considered typical of folksongs composed through communal re-creation; the first seven stanzas of “The Fals Fox,” for example, are a textbook case of “incremental repetition,” in which each verse changes only a few details of the verse before it. This, and the fact that the song already existed in two quite different variants, both suggest that the song was already in oral circulation in the Middle Ages. It’s pretty remarkable, then, that the song was still being sung when folksong enthusiasts began collecting from oral tradition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Pete Seeger’s version of “The Fox” was released in 1958, on the second volume in his series of albums called American Favorite Ballads, on the Folkways label. You can get a pdf file of the liner notes here. His lyrics were as follows:
The fox went out on a chilly night,
Prayed for the moon to give him light.
For he’d many a mile to go that night
Before he reached the town-o.
He’d many a mile to go that night
Before he reached the town-o.
He ran till he came to a great big bin.
The ducks and the geese were put therein.
Said, “Couple of you will grease my chin
Before I leave this town-o.
He grabbed the grey goose by the neck
Slung the little one over his back.
He didn’t mind their “quack, quack, quack,”
And the legs all dangling down-o.
Old mother pitter-patter jumped out of bed.
Out of the window, she cocked her head.
Crying, “John, John, the grey goose is gone,
And the fox is on the town-o.”
John, he went to the top of the hill,
Blew his horn both loud and shrill.
The fox, he said, “Better flee with my kill.
He’ll soon be on my trail-o.”
He ran till he came to his cozy den.
There were the little ones, eight, nine, ten.
They said, “Daddy, better go back again,
‘Cause it must be a mighty fine town-o.”
Then the fox and his wife without any strife
Cut up the goose with fork and knife.
They never had such a supper in their life,
And the little ones chewed on the bones-o.
Pete never said where he got the song, but his friend Burl Ives recorded a very similar version about ten years before Pete’s came out, and many assume Pete learned it from Ives. Similar versions were widely sung among Pete’s social circle, including his friends Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. Pete’s version was a commercial recording, and it’s currently unavailable for free listening, but our friends at Smithsonian Folkways have put Houston’s version online as a video; you can see and hear it at this link.
There’s much more to say about the fox and his legendary battle with the goose. As you can see from the etching below, it’s even enshrined in the stars! But that’s another story for another time. In the meantime, let’s sing this six-hundred-year-old folksong and remember Pete.
Thanks for this wonderful memory. My son, who learned to sing folk music and revere Pete as a child, sings this song to his children now. Our family loved Pete, saw him perform many times in Pittsburgh, and thought he really believed music could bring about a better society.
Fascinating! Who knew!
Enjoyed this article (and the Pete Seeger one), Steve. The Fox was a favorite of mine 40 year when I was singing to (with) my sons..
On 09/21/89, Burl Ives did a concert in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium, sponsored by the Center for the Book. He was 80 years old and had suffered a mild stroke. He opened with “The Fox.” Toward the end of the song, he had a memory lapse. After a dramatic pause, he made a gentle movement with his hand and said “You know, that’s the first time in 74 years that I forgot a verse of this song.” Pretty good track record, if you ask me! After the concert, he donated the Hauser guitar he was playing to the Library.
Thanks, everyone! We still have the guitar Joe mentions here at the American Folklife Center, and we allow visiting musicians to play it. Recently, Rosanne Cash, Jon Leventhal, and Rodney Crowell have strummed Burl’s Hauser!
One of my most requested children’s songs. I learned it from a recording by Dorothy Olsen who recorded The Fox, and The Little White Duck.
I’m really late to this blog post, but Tolkien uses this same rhyme and meter for the song Same sings at the petrified troll in ‘Lord of the Rings’ and just a cool literary tidbit of how familiar Tolkien was with Medieval English tunes and establishing a ‘pre-history’ of this song like he did with ‘Hey-Diddle-Diddle’
I’m just seeing this is 2022. I remember my dad singing this song to me, my brothers and all my cousins when we were wee little things living in Maryland. Thank you for the history. I miss him so much and miss hearing him sing this as well. He would be so animated when he sang it. Giggles and laughter from all of us kids when he did.
I be the Fox from vulpecula just call e The Culprit Leader