“The Three Ravens”


(Three) ravens decide that a new-slain knight would make a nice lunch. He is guarded by hawk, hounds, and leman, who either guard the body from the birds or abandon it to its fate


The degree of degeneration suffered by the American versions of this song is phenomenal (They are often quite silly, and if they retain the theme of the birds eating carrion, it is usually an animal, such as a horse). Brewster's longer version is, in fact, a trick upon listeners: "You may think there is another verse -- but there isn't."

If it weren't for the intermediate versions, we could hardly recognize them as one piece. But that's oral tradition -- though Belden says the song was part of the minstrel tradition in the 1860s, and Flanders-Ancient notes the inclusion of a "rewritten form in books like _Cleveland's Compendium_ of 1859." In many of these versions it is a horse, not a man, which supplies the birds' meal.

The by-blow "The Twa Corbies" is one of the handful of traditional songs in Palgrave's _Golden Treasury_ (item CXXXVI). Not sure what that says about either Palgrave or the song. Properly, "The Twa Corbies" should probably be split off, since it is recensionally different from "The Three Ravens." But this is impossible in practice, because the degenerate forms often could come from either, or indeed recombine the two. - RBW

Cross references


  1. Child 26, "The Three Ravens" (2 texts)
  2. Bronson 26, The Three Ravens" (21 versions)
  3. BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 435-437, "The Three Ravens" (notes plus a partial reprint of Ravenscroft)
  4. Belden, pp. 31-33, "The Three Ravens" (2 texts, plus 2 tunes not derived from Missouri)
  5. Randolph 9, "The Three Crows" (2 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #18}
  6. Davis-Ballads 10, "The Three Ravens" (17 texts, some very short; the "Q" fragment may be another song; the additional songs in the appendix are "Johnny Fill Up the Bowl"; 4 tunes entitled "The Three Ravens," "[The] Three Crows"; 10 more versions mentioned in Appendix A) {I=Bronson's #16 J=K=#17, P is not printed by Bronson}
  7. Davis-More 13, pp. 84-88, "The Three Ravens" (3 texts, 2 tunes)
  8. BrownII 9, "The Three Ravens" (1 very short text)
  9. Chappell-FSRA 5, "Three Black Crows" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #4}
  10. Hudson 6, pp. 72-73, "The Three Ravens" (1 fragment)
  11. Scarborough-SongCatcher, pp. 193-195, "The Three Ravens/The Twa Corbies" (1 short text, entitled "Three Old Crows" and typical of that type, plus the text from Ravenscroft for comparison)
  12. Scarborough-NegroFS, p. 149, (no title) (1 fragment, mentioning three crows on a tree with an ending about a sick old horse; the whole might well be a dead horse song with a few "Three Ravens" lines, but without more text we cannot tell)
  13. Brewster 8, "The Three Ravens" (1 text plus a fragment)
  14. Creighton/Senior, p. 21, "The Three Ravens" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #11}
  15. Creighton-SNewBrunswick 1, "The Three Crows" (1 text, 1 tune)
  16. Flanders/Brown, p. 129, "Three Black Crows" (1 text, 1 tune)
  17. Flanders-Ancient1, pp. 243-256, "The Twa Corbies" (10 texts, many of them quite short, 3 tunes; the last two items, "I" and "J," appear to be somewhat rewritten)
  18. Linscott, p. 289, "Three Crows" (1 short text, 1 tune)
  19. Leach, pp. 111-113, "The Three Ravens/The Twa Corbies" (2 texts)
  20. Leach-Labrador 1, "The Three Ravens" (1 text, 1 tune)
  21. OBB 67, "The Twa Corbies"; 68, "The Three Ravens" (2 texts)
  22. Friedman, p. 23, "The Three Ravens (The Twa Corbies)" (3 texts)
  23. PBB 28, "The Three Ravens" (1 text)
  24. Doerflinger, p. 21, "Blow the Man Down (IV)" (this text combines the words of "The Three Crows" with the tune and metre of "Blow the Man Down")
  25. Hugill, p. 212, "The Three Ravens" (1 text sung to the tune of "Blow the Man Down," taken from Doerflinger)
  26. Niles 17, "The Three Ravens" (3 texts, 3 tunes, although the first piece, "Lovers' Farewell," is at best distantly related to this ballad)
  27. Gummere, pp. 167+336, "The Three Ravens" (1 text)
  28. SharpAp 11 "The Three Ravens" (1 short text plus 2 fragments, 3 tunes){Bronson's #16, #15, #14}
  29. Sharp/Karpeles-80E 5, "The Two Crows (The Three Ravens)" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #15}
  30. Chase, pp. 114-115, "The Two Ravens" (1 text, 1 tune)
  31. Hodgart, p. 37, "The Three Ravens"; p. 38, "The Twa Corbies" (2 texts)
  32. JHCox 31, "The Three Ravens" (2 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #10}
  33. JHCoxIIA, #5, pp. 19-20, "The Crow Song" (1 short text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #5}
  34. TBB 36, "The Three Ravens" (1 text)
  35. Chappell/Wooldridge I, pp. 75-76, "There Were Three Ravens" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #1}
  36. HarvClass-EP1, pp. 73-74, "The Three Ravens"; p. 74, "The Twa Corbies" (2 texts)
  37. Abrahams/Foss, pp. 173-176, "The Three Ravens"; "The Twa Corbies"; "The Three Crows" (3 texts, 3 tunes) {Bronson's #1, #8; the third tune was not known to Bronson}
  38. Darling-NAS, pp. 26-28, "The Three Ravens (or, 'Rauens')"; "The Twa Corbies"; "The Three Crows" (3 texts)
  39. Silber-FSWB, p. 405, "Billy Magee Magaw"; p. 215, "The Three Ravens" (2 texts)
  41. ADDITIONAL: Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #117, "The Twa Corbies" (1 text)
  42. Roud #5
  43. BI, C026


Alternate titles: “Billie Magee Magaw”; “Willie McGee McGaw”; “Two Old Crows”; “Three Black Crows”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1611 (Ravenscroft)
Keywords: death bird food
Found in: Britain(Scotland,England) US(MW,NE,SE,So,SW) Canada(Mar,Newf)