“Grey Cock, The, or, Saw You My Father”


Man bids his love to let him in. After some hours of lovemaking, he tells her he must depart when the cock crows (or before). She hopes the cock will not crow soon, but it crows early. She learns that her lover is a ghost, and may never return

Supplemental text

Grey Cock, The, or, Saw You My Father [Child 248]
  Complete text(s)

          *** A ***

O Saw ye my Father

From James Johnson, "The Scots Musical Museum," Volume I, #76, pp.
77. As found in the 1853 edition (punctuation is somewhat uncertain,
given the state of the facsimile).

O saw ye my Father, or saw ye my Mother,
  Or saw ye my true love John.
I saw not your father, I saw not your Mother,
  But I saw your true love John.

It's now ten at night, and the stars gi'e nae light,
  And the bells they ring, ding dong,
He's met wi' some delay, that sauseth him to stay,
  But he will be here ere long.

The surly auld carl did naething but snarl,
  And Johny's face it grew red;
Yet tho' he often sigh'd, he ne'er a word reply'd,
  Till all were asleep in bed.

Up Johny rose, and to the door he goes,
  And gently tirled the pin;
The lassie taking tent, unto the door she went,
  And she open'd and let him in.

And are you come at last, and do I hold ye fast,
  And is my Johny true!
I have nae time to tell, sae lang's I like myself,
  Sae lang shall I love you.

Flee up, flee up, my bonny gray cock,
  And craw when it is day;
Your neck shall be like the bonny beaten gold
  And your wings of the silver grey.

The cock prov'd false, and untrue he was,
  For he crew an hour o'er soon;
The lassie thought it day, when she sent her love away,
  And it was but a blink of the moon.

Long description

Man comes to his lover's window, bidding her open and let him in. They spend the night in lovemaking; toward dawn, he tells her he must leave when the cock crows for day. She prays the cock not to crow too soon, but the cock in fact crows early. She remarks her lover's cold lips and skin, realizing he has returned to her dead. As he leaves, she asks when she will see him again; he replies with impossibilities ("When the fish they fly, love, and the sea runs dry, love/And the rocks they melt in the heat of the sun") -- i.e., at the Judgment Day.


[Of Bronson's sixteen versions,] only one is of the Night Visiting Song type and one of the I Once Loved a Lass type. - AS

Hugh Shields wrote an article, "The Grey Cock: Dawn Song or Revenant Ballad?" (reprinted in E. B. Lyle, _Ballad Studies_, pp. 67-92) which argues that, in its original form, this was an "alba" or "dawn song" rather than a revenant ballad.

The problem with the hypothesis, as even Shields grudgingly admits, is that this type of song is literally unknown in English (it's associated primarily with the Iberian peninsula, though James J. Wilhelm, _Medieval Song_, p. 107, claims that the oldest Dawn Song is the Provencal "En un vergier sotz folha s'albespi," and Wilhelm prints several other dawn songs from France, and even a few from Germany).

Shields never ever really defines the form, giving only a few footnotes, one pointing to a German article on Chaucer's _Troilus_. Looking at the examples in Wilhelm (there are several more found among the Provencal songs), it appears that the characteristic of the form is two young people, forbidden to meet, still coming together at night and having to part before dawn. Though there are also "religious" alba songs, presumably in praise of the light, and a few other things. All of them, however, are art or minstrel songs, not folk songs.

The former type of alba song, obviously, resembles "The Grey Cock" -- but the motivations are entirely different, and so, generally, is the outcome; in the alba songs, the light simply threatens to reveal the lovers, while it threatens the ghost's very existence in the English ballad. I incline to think the similarity, if there is one, is coincidental -- i.e. "The Grey Cock" may be an alba song, but it is not from the tradition of alba songs.

I should probably note, though, that the Provencal examples cited come mostly from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries -- i.e. some of them come from the time when England ruled large parts of Provence. Henry II had Provencal troubadours in his entourage (perhaps the most famous of all, Bertran de Born, c. 1140-1214, had a part in the quarrels between Henry and his son Henry the Young King, and wrote a lament for the latter). So the form could have been introduced into England at the time -- if you believe that it could have survived the conversion into English and then have lasted until modern times.

There is a nursery rhyme verse which is probably related to this, though it might also have been influenced by "Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight" or something similar:

Oh, my pretty cock, oh, my handsome cock,

I pray you, do not crow before day,

And your comb shall be made of the very beaten gold,

And your wings of the silver so gray. (Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #852, p. 320.) - RBW

The nine-verse Costello version [Vaughan Williams/Lloyd] of "The Grey Cock" begins with five verses often found in "Rise Up Quickly and Let Me In (The Ghostly Lover)," including the distinguishing lines

Saying, "I'll be guided without a stumble...."

"....Disturbing me from my long night's rest?"

"It is your own true love, pray don't discover..."

"....For I am wet after my long night's journey,

Besides I'm wet love unto the skin."

followed by the "where is the blushes" verse from "Willy O!", two bribery and betrayal verses from Child 248, and ends with the "when the fish they fly" verse from "I Will Put My Ship In Order"; Ewan MacColl's version of the Costello text adds one more verse from "Willy O!"

Perhaps a revenant "The Grey Cock" was closer to the P.W. Joyce version and the two closely related Karpeles-Newfoundland texts; that ballad also concludes with the "when the fish they fly" verse. There the distinguishing lines include

"And where is your bed, my dearest love," he said,

"And where are your white Holland sheets?

And where are the maids, oh my darling dear," he said,

"That wait upon you whilst you are asleep?"

"The clay it is me bed, my dearest dear," she said,

"The shroud is my white Holland sheet.

And the worms and creeping things are me servants, dear," she said,

"That wait upon me whilst I am asleep."

(Joyce's text, unlike Karpeles's, reverses the sex of the parties.) Or maybe that is another independent set of ballads.

Child's notes to "The Grey Cock, or, Saw You My Father?" refer to a ballad without a ghost theme ended prematurely by a crowing cock: "The cock is remiss or unfaithful, again, in a little ballad picked up by Burns in Nithsdale, 'A Waukrife Minnie,' Cromek, Select Scottish Songs. You can read the text of the 1789 poem at Burns Country site.

Robert Cinnamond's version on IRRCinnamond02, like Child, Johnson, SHenry and BarryEckstormSmyth, have no ghostly elements. At the end, as in SHenry, the woman is deserted by a man who would just rather not be married. My own inclination, without getting into the "alba" controversy, is to believe that the ghostly versions, like Costello, Vaughan Williams/Lloyd and MacColl, have imported the ghost from entirely different ballads. - BS

Cross references


  • Robert Cinnamond, "Fly Up My Cock" (on IRRCinnamond02)
  • Cecilia Costello, "The Grey Ghost" (on FSB5 [as "The Grey Cock"], FSBBAL2) {Bronson's #16}
  • A. L. Lloyd, "The Lover's Ghost" (on Lloyd1) (on Lloyd2, Lloyd3)
  • Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, "The Grey Cock" (on ENMacCollSeeger02)


  1. Child 248, "The Grey Cock, or, Saw You My Father" (1 text)
  2. Bronson 248, "The Grey Cock, or, Saw You My Father" (16 versions)
  3. SharpAp 36, "The Grey Cock" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #6}
  4. BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 310-313, "The Grey Cock" (1 text plus Joyce's version of "The Lover's Ghost")
  5. Leach, pp. 611-612, "The Grey Cock" (2 texts)
  6. Warner 90, "Pretty Crowin' Chicken" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Creighton/Senior, pp. 83-85, "The Grey Cock" (2 texts, 2 tunes) {Bronson's #11, #13}
  8. Karpeles-Newfoundland 21, "The Lover's Ghost" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
  9. Vaughan Williams/Lloyd, pp. 52-53, "The Grey Cock, or The Lover's Ghost" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #16}
  10. Hodgart, p. 148, "The Grey Cock" (1 text)
  11. SHenry H699, pp. 383-384, "The Bonny Bushes Bright" (1 text, 1 tune)
  12. DT 248, GREYCOCK*
  13. ST C248 (Full)
  14. Roud #179
  15. BI, C248


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1769 (Herd)
Found in: Britain(England(South,West),Scotland) US(Ap,SE) Canada(Mar,Newf) Ireland