100 Works of Art: (Aural) Crow on the Cradle, Sydney Carter

The 100 Works of Art blog series is to do with personal interaction with beloved works of art rather than impartial reviews or focussing solely on the relatable and universal qualities of the work. Because this is a blog, not a book. The first 25 are to do with visual art, and begin with Matta’s Black Virtue; the next 25 will be about aural art and begin with The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed.

29. Crow on the Cradle, Sydney Carter & Jackson Browne

I grew up on a mixture of folk music and a little of the blues. My mother had what my peers characterised as “terrible” taste in music, and I adopted it: as I’ve got older her taste in music has become genuinely terrible (there was a point where it was all whale noise and Gregorian chant and then as I got into plainchant she managed to undercut me again and asked if I’d get her a James Blunt CD) and I’ve decided to ignore the judgement of a collection of Celine Dion-reared rejects from my childhood and embrace the inner folkie. A lot of the songs I listened to as a child were standard-issue folk music about girls with this or that coloured hair or one particularly brilliant song about an enormous pie – the title of which I’ve never been able to remember, to my great loss. But a lot of the songs, too, were protest songs: other contenders for this slot included Country Joe & The Fish’s Fish Cheer/I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag, a selection of Donovan songs including Universal Soldier, and the Fureys & Davey Arthur’s version of The Green Fields of France. Not surprisingly for someone who was taken to an anti-nuclear weapons protest at six weeks old, I grew up listening to various earnest people – both with and without beards and dungarees – requesting with various metaphors and degrees of urgency that the world consider maybe not nuking itself into oblivion.

Regular readers of this blog will be more than a little aware by now that I am morbid as fuck despite all my best efforts, and this began early, with a love of the aforementioned Green Fields of France and a collection of songs which were, bluntly put, guitar-led dirges about dead people. Crow on the Cradle is no different in that respect, and along with Universal Soldier and an untitled song about dead soldiers in the Vietnam War which I listened to so often that I wore out the C90 cassette it was on, got considerable use as a lullaby for me.

It is a little like a lullaby. There is something late evening, inevitable, and gentle about the version I am most familiar with. It puts me in mind of the festivals I spent all my childhood summers at: the sun low in the sky, the flies rising, a hubbub of voices and the smell of wood fires, music everywhere in the background, and hot, dry earth under bare feet. In that respect it is comforting, although you do have to wonder about finding a song warning of nuclear holocaust “comforting”. 

As with many a folk song, the lyrics work as a poem, and the whole thing is designed to be memorable and easily-recited. It’s a kind of troubadour tradition: make the information simple to pass on and vivid enough to stick in people’s minds. In the case of Crow on the Cradle it’s achieved with snatches of nursery rhymes and nursery-rhyme-esque phrase: hush-a-bye little one, never you weepwith rings on her fingers, and bells on her toes; in each case subverted by a fairly chilling closing part to the pattern: for we’ve got a toy that can put you to sleep; or and a bomber above her wherever she goes. As the fact that I’ve had a French nursery rhyme about wearing clogs stuck in my head for a week can very much attest, nursery rhymes are tenacious once crammed into the brain and arise as soon as a similar phrase is heard. So it is that this is a thing that I leave up to you immediately recalls the rest of the song, and while “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross” is not the most oft-recited of nursery rhymes, it has been supplanted in my mind all the same by and a bomber above her wherever she goes.

Each verse in itself becomes bleaker and more morbid as it progresses, from cow’s in the corn to carry a gun (and the ominous omen of death in the crow on the cradle of the title and refrain), but overall they also become more and more ominous and threatening, like the returning passes of a bomber. Well-paced in this regard, it is the centre verse which repeats on itself, speeding up the onset of the fearful and the morbid (somebody’s baby is born for a fight / somebody’s baby is not coming back), setting up the remaining two verses with their violence and oppression at the start: your mother and father will sweat and they’ll save, to build you a coffin and dig you a grave. In these remaining verses the blame is attributed: the beginnings speak of the baby in the cradle and the doom overhanging it, while these tell the listener whose fault it is. The generation of the songwriter, apparently, is to blame. 

The song closes with an insistent demand for action delivered by the threat that must be eliminated itself, the eponymous crow on the cradle, repeating: this is a thing that I leave up to you. Even now the assigning of responsibility is palpable and in the context of the rest of the song the refusal to act seems like it comes at a chilling cost. It is not hard to imagine the crow as a mushroom cloud.

In light of all this, even more so, it is strange to find the song comforting, but I’ve always also found a certain level of comfort in nihilism and the idea of accepting the degree of powerlessness an individual has in the face of a very powerful force (in this case, mankind’s apparent yen for self-destruction).


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