98  The Nightingales Song; Or The Souldiers rare Musick,/ and Maids Recreation [Pepys 4.41]

Author: Anonymous

Recording: The Nightingales Song

Bodies - looks/physique Emotions - joy Emotions - longing Employment - sailors/soldiers Environment - birds Environment - flowers/trees Environment - seasons Environment - weather Gender - courtship Gender - femininity Gender - masculinity Gender - sex Humour - bawdry Humour - verbal Morality - romantic/sexual Recreation - music Recreation - walking

Song History

This song’s history, in and out of print, is a little curious. It seems to have been registered for the first time in 1639. At this date, the ballad is identified in the Stationers’ Register only as ‘The souldier and his knapsack’ but there are very good reasons for considering this a reference to The Nightingales Song. Such half-remembered titles were common in the Register, and our ballad refers to the soldier’s knapsack both in its subtitle and in one of its pivotal verses. Moreover, we have been unable to find any other seventeenth-century ballad that might conceivably have been remembered as a song about ‘The souldier and his knapsack’.

There are only three surviving editions of the ballad but it was registered again in 1675, suggesting on-going success. Surprisingly, there is no evidence of publication in the eighteenth century but the song, in a reduced version and without a designated tune, was printed again in the nineteenth century, under the title ‘Bold Grenadier’ (there are copies in Bodleian Library).

Folk-song collectors from the late-nineteenth century onwards found that the ballad was very well-established in vernacular singing traditions under numerous titles (including ‘The lady and the grenadier’, ‘The nightingale’ and ‘One morning in May’). Variant versions were found in many parts of England, America and Canada, most of them retaining only the core aspects of the original narrative (Vaughan Williams Memorial Library). The tunes that were used seem to bear no relation to the original melody, and most of the collected versions are more similar in length and content to the song printed in the nineteenth century than to the early-modern broadside.

Having said this, a minority of the folk-songs include phrases that are found in the seventeenth-century song but not in the later printed version (examples include ‘with kisses and compliments’ and ‘take warning by me’). There may have been other published versions, now lost, that included these expressions, though it also seems likely that oral transmission played its part in the song’s somewhat mysterious journey through time.

Certainly, a good case can be made for the song’s progress through the following series of stages: professional composition and publication of the original during the seventeenth century; oral transmission through the eighteenth century, reducing the song’s length by preserving only the essentials of its narrative; fresh publication of this pared-down song in the nineteenth century; further re-shaping of folk-song versions under the influence of the newly published text; and subsequent collection of the lyrics by folk-song enthusiasts in versions that reveal the variable traces of each previous phase. The folk-song has also been recorded by numerous artists, including The Coon Creek Girls (Kentucky), The Dubliners (Ireland) and IQ (England).

To seventeenth century ballad-consumers, it seems certain that this was primarily an entertaining song about sex, distinguished particularly by its amusingly musical double-euphemism: fiddle-playing stands for male sexual endeavour while the nightingale’s song signifies female orgasm (if you have already listened to the ballad without considering these possibilities, then we apologise). Both sides of the equation must have generated mirth, but the ballad-makers’ attitude to the nightingale is more sustained and somewhat more inventive than their treatment of the fiddle. Everyone knew that fiddles were often sexual but the song goes further than most in exploring the symbolic potential of the eponymous songbird.

Nightingales were already associated strongly with spring-time and courtship. People were aware that they only sang between April and June, before vanishing completely and mysteriously in the autumn (it is now established that they head for Africa but early modern writers could only speculate in relation to their winter whereabouts). The connection between nightingales and spring is expressed in many literary sources, including ballads. In a different song called The Nightingale:/ Whose curious Notes are here explain’d, we are told that ‘the little pretty dulcid dainty creature’ sings to accompany the courtship activities of apprentices in May (the tune was unusually complex and required the performer to imitate the sound of the nightingale).

Both The Nightingale and The Nightingale’s Song apparently originated in the 1630s, and it seems possible that the authors were bouncing ideas off one another, like two rival songbirds competing for territory in the woods. If so, then The Nightingale’s Song seems to have won the contest, perhaps by pushing the sexual implications of the sound more forcefully than previous authors had done. Of course, the ballad-makers were never explicit but the repetitive refrain offered listeners thirteen opportunities to penetrate the not-so-secret metaphorical mystery. Where many ballad-makers vaguely implied a link between the song of nightingales and sexual pleasure, the authors of The Nightingale’s Song all but spelled it out.

This is an excellent example of the ballad-maker’s craft: an existing convention that appealed through familiarity was given a potent boost so that it simultaneously delivered a surprise. It was a job well done, and when the song is performed live today, it retains the capacity to make listeners laugh (during the research for this project, the Carnival Band performed it at concerts in Belfast, York and London).

Most early-modern references to the singing of nightingales emphasise its sweetness and its links to happy human comings-together in the spring sunshine. The sound, however, was actually rather more complex than this might imply. With some regularity, the nightingale’s call was also considered mournful. This contrary association seems to have derived in part from the ancient Greek tale of Philomela, who was turned into a nightingale by the gods following a brutal cycle of rape, mutilation and murder. Under the influence of this legend, the singing of nightingales could be understood as hauntingly sad, and melancholic traces are frequently encountered in ballads of the seventeenth century. One lover, featured in a ballad by Richard Barnfield, heard the bird sing, and commented, ‘For her griefe so lively showne,/ makes me thinke upon my owne’.

While this aspect of the nightingale’s reputation was not articulated explicitly in our hit song, it may nevertheless have sprung to the minds of some listeners and readers. After all, the ‘fair Damosel’ of the ballad fails to secure a promise of matrimony from her seducer before agreeing to sexual intercourse, a fact that places her in a perilous position. She receives ‘a Gold Ring’ from the lustful soldier but such a token of commitment was unlikely to save her from danger if she ended up pregnant and deserted by this representative of a notoriously unreliable occupation. The risks are also articulated in the moral warning with which the song concludes and hinted at by the potentially regretful lilt of the melody (see also Featured tune history). In sum, these darker shades perhaps gave this apparently light-hearted song an emotional depth that helps to explain its early-modern appeal.

The ballad also taps into a more general early-modern fascination with the nightingale and its song. This is probably the most widely-referenced bird in English poetical culture, and when the playwright Ben Jonson sought a name for his fictional ballad-singer he opted, not surprisingly, for ‘Nightingale’. Jonson’s Nightingale was male but most poets referred to the celebrated songbird as ‘she’, even though it is only the male of the species that sings. Nightingales were also commonly kept as pets, cherished for their singing abilities, and authors offered instruction on all aspects of their capture and care (see Blagrave).

We should also note that the sound of nightingales was far more familiar in seventeenth-century England than it is today. It was also more clearly audible because levels of ambient sound were much lower than they have since become. Nightingales were widely distributed, and their song was surely well-known to all English people in the centuries before habitat destruction and other forms of environmental degradation caused their numbers to collapse. In the seventeenth century, this meant that those who knew the ballad might think of it and chuckle each time they heard their neighbourhood nightingales giving voice.

Christopher Marsh


Anon, The Nightingale:/ Whose curious Notes are here explain’d... To a new and much affected Court Tune (registered, 1633; edition of 1633-80).

Anon, Regular and irregular thoughts in poets and orators (1697), p. 13.

Richard Barnfield, A Lovers newest Curranto... To a pleasant new tune (c. 1625).

Joseph Blagrave, New additions to the art of husbandry (1675), pp. 53-72.

Broadside ballads from the Bodleian Library: http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

Stefan Buczacki, Fauna Britannica (2002), pp. 337-38.

The Coon Creek girls, ‘The soldier and the lady’ on Early radio favourites (Old Homestead Records, 1983), track 13.

Morgan Dickson, ‘Nightingales in medieval text and sound: liminality and evasion’, Polysèmes Revue d’études intertextuelles et intermédiales 22 (2019).

The Dubliners, ‘The nightingale’ on Irish folk favourites (Hallmark, 2000), track 2.

English Broadside Ballad Archive: https://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/

English Short Title Catalogue.

Vic Gammon, Desire, drink and death in English folk and vernacular song, 1600-1900 (Abingdon, 2016), pp. 52-56.

George Gascoigne, The steele glas (1576), B1r-v.

IQ, ‘The bold grenadier’ on The lost attic (GEP, 1999), track 9.

Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair (first performed, 1614) in The workes of Benjamin Jonson (1641).

Hyder E. Rollins, An analytical index to the ballad-entries (1557-1709) in the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London (1924; Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1967), nos.1945 and 2468 .

Steve Roud, Folk Song in England (2017), pp. 289, 561-62 and 658.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, https://www.vwml.org/ [search for Roud number 140].

Yorkshire folk song: https://www.yorkshirefolksong.net/song.cfm

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Featured Tune History

To the tune of ‘Peggy and the Souldier’ (standard name: Peg and the soldier)

The purpose of this section is to provide brief notes on the melody followed by detailed evidence relating to  its career, paying particular attention to the ‘echoes’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was nominated for the singing of more than one ballad. In the list presented in the ‘Songs and Summaries’ section below, we have endeavoured to include as many of the black-letter ballads that used the tune as possible, under any of its variant names. Titles from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type (these are also in colour when there is a link to the relevant ballad page on the website). It should be noted that it is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).  In most cases, we list the earliest surviving edition of a ballad, though in many instances there may have been earlier versions, now lost.

Versions and variations

This lovely. lilting tune was rarely written down and the only example that has so far been found occurs in the Scottish Skene manuscript for mandore (mid-seventeenth century). Here, it is entitled, ‘Peggie is over Ye Sie wi’ye Souldier’. Naturally enough, this is the version used on our recording. This song also survived strongly within later vernacular tradition but the tunes to which it was sung in the early twentieth century seem unrelated to the original.

On ballads of the seventeenth century, the melody was entitled ‘Peggy and the Soldier’, ‘Peggy went over the sea with a soldier’ or ‘The nightingale’s song’ (from the ballad under discussion here).

Echoes (an overview)

This tune was not widely used on ballads of the period but the fact that two of the three songs listed below were highly successful suggests that it was nevertheless very well known. All three ballads deal with love, and their general tone is bright and positive. In A new Ballad of the Souldier and Peggy, a young wife abandons her husband for a soldier but she eventually comes to her senses and returns home to make amends. Constant, faire, and fine Betty is optimistic from start to finish. And The Nightingales Song, though it carries a moral warning about casual sex in its closing verses, generally feels more like a celebration of irresponsible young romance than a condemnation (the previous associations of the tune also help to tip the balance in this direction).

The ballads listed below are connected chiefly by their shared tune and by the presence of lusty soldiers in both of the hits. There are occasional textual echoes - ‘Good morrow sweet honey’ (The Nightingales Song) recalls ‘Well met my sweet Hony’ (Constant, faire, and fine Betty), for example – but such points of contact are not numerous.

In fact, the strongest echo connects Constant, faire, and fine Betty with The rarest Ballad that ever was seen,/ Of the Blind beggers daughter of Bednall-green, a hit song set to a different tune. Most verses in both songs end with conspicuous and memorable references to ‘pretty Bessee’ or ‘pretty Betty’, and it seems likely that the two songs must have reminded listeners of one another. Compare the following lines, for example: ‘For none was so comely as pretty Bessee’ (The rarest Ballad); and ‘Of all maids the rarest is pretty Betty’ (Constant, faire, and fine Betty).

[See 'Postscript', below, for additional notes on this melody].

Songs and Summaries

A new Ballad of the Souldier and Peggy. To a new Northerne Tune (F. Coules, 1624-56).  Roxburghe 1.370-71; EBBA 30250. Gender – marriage, courtship, femininity, masculinity; Morality – familial, romantic/sexual; Family – children/parents; Emotions – longing, sorrow, contentment; Employment – sailors/soldiers, crafts/trades; Nature – sea; Places – travel. Peggy, a married women, runs off with a soldier, but returns home within three months and seeks forgiveness from her husband.

Constant, faire, and fine Betty. Being The Young-mans praise, of a curious Creature... To the Tune of, Peggy went over Sea, with a Souldier (John Wright the younger, 1634-58).  Roxburghe 1.66-67; EBBA 30046.  Gender – courtship, femininity; Bodies – physique/looks; Emotions – love; History – ancient/mythological; Religion – ancient gods.  A man sings the praises of his beautiful and loyal sweetheart, and she responds by declaring her wish to marry him.

The Nightingales Song; Or The Souldiers rare Musick, and Maids Recreation... The Tune of, No, no, not I; Or, Peggy and the Souldier (registered 1675; J. Wright, J. C[larke, W.] Thackeray, and T. Passinger, 1682-84). Pepys 4.41; EBBA 21707. Gender – sex, courtship, masculinity, femininity; Environment – birds, flowers/trees, weather, seasons; Humour – bawdry, verbal; Employment  - sailors/soldiers; Recreation – music, walking;  Bodies – looks/physique; Emotions – longing, joy; Morality – romantic/sexual. Through musical and ornithological metaphor, this tells the story of a soldier who seduces a young maiden on a spring day but then returns to the army, leaving her to rue their ‘hasty pleasure’.


This tune, named as ‘Pegg and the Souldier’, was also nominated on the white-letter ballad, THE Love-sick Blacksmith: OR, The Unkind MAID OF Ratcliff’s Cruelty (1690s?). This maintains the romantic theme established by the black-letter songs, though here the outcome is a sad one (a woman refuses to marry a blacksmith because of his lowly occupation).

'No, no, not I', the tune named as an alternative for The Nightingales Song, has not been identified. The tune-name probably originated in the refrain to A Warning for Maides, another courtship ballad (by Richard Climsell).

Christopher Marsh


Skene manuscript (mid-seventeenth century), National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS 5.2.15 (transcription in Simpson).

Claude Simpson, The British broadside ballad and its music (New Brunswick, 1966), pp. 572-73.

https://www.vwml.org/ (Vaughan Williams Memorial Library).

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Partridge

The purpose of this section is to provide evidence relating to  the career of the image under discussion, paying particular attention to the ‘reflections’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was chosen to illustrate more than one ballad. The list given below includes all ballads from the Pepys and Roxburghe collections that feature this woodcut or a close variant (these are the two largest collections, including approximately 3300 sheets, in total). References to ballads from other collections occur only when the featured edition of the song under consideration here (or the featured edition of another song from our list) comes from such a source. Ballads from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type, and they also appear in colour where there is a link to another song in the database. Please note, however, that the editions of hit songs listed below are not necessarily those for which digital images are presented on this website. Cross-references to other examples of our featured woodcuts are also presented in bold. It is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).

Reflections (an overview)

This image was used occasionally in the later seventeenth century, and all the copies that are listed below were produced from the same woodblock. A later edition of The Nightingales Song retained this eye-catching picture while changing the others, implying that the big bird was a selling point. Despite this, it remained a rare species, and its ballad career never really got off the ground.

The record is just full enough, however, to demonstrate two things. First, a picture of a partridge was perfectly capable of representing a cuckoo or a nightingale. Most viewers probably knew the difference between these birds, but they were evidently expected to overlook the physiological discrepancies. In the world of the ballad woodcut, a bird was a bird.

Second, there was a close connection in early-modern minds between birdsong and sex. The call of the cuckoo speaks of the cuckold, while the music of the nightingale serves as a euphemism for female orgasm. The final ballad listed here is less crude but it too draws on an association between birdsong and love-making. The same association can also be found in many other romantic ballads that open with references to the calling of birds.

Songs and summaries:

The Cuckcoo of the Times (P. Brooksby, 1670-98).  Roxburghe 2.52; EBBA 30452.  Environment – birds; Gender – adultery/cuckoldry, marriage; Humour – bawdry, verbal, domestic/familial; Politics – domestic, Royalists, plots; History – ancient/mythological Employment – crafts/trades, professions; Recreation – music; Religion – ancient gods. A ballad about the song of a favourite bird, playing merrily with cuckoo-cuckold connection and arguing that all men are destined to hear this form of music (picture placement: the bird appears over the opening column of text, next to a woman holding a vase of flowers).

The Nightingales Song; Or The Souldiers rare Musick, and Maids Recreation (J. Wright, J. C[larke, W.] Thackeray, and T. Passinger, 1682-84). Pepys 4.41; EBBA 21707. Gender – sex, courtship, masculinity, femininity; Environment – birds, flowers/trees, weather, seasons; Humour – bawdry, verbal; Employment  - sailors/soldiers; Recreation – music, walking;  Bodies – looks/physique; Emotions – longing, joy; Morality – romantic/sexual. Through musical and ornithological metaphor, this tells the story of a soldier who seduces a young maiden on a spring day but then returns to the army, leaving her to rue their ‘hasty pleasure’ (picture placement : the bird appears over the fourth and fifth columns of text).

The Woody Querristers (I. Clarke, W. Thackeray, and T. Passinger, 1684-86).  Pepys 4.267; EBBA 21928.  Nature – birds, animals; Gender – courtship, singles; Bodies – physique; Emotions – sorrow, love. Various birds explain that their appearances and habits are the cause of disappointment in love (picture placement: the image appears over the third column of text and is the middle one of three woodcuts featuring birds).

Christopher Marsh

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Related Texts

We have not found other seventeenth-century texts that seem closely related to The Nightingales Song at the level of precise verbal content. A later folksong was based on the ballad, however, and is discussed in the Song history. This folksong subsequently left its traces in several other songs (see Gammon and Roud).

Christopher Marsh


Vic Gammon, Desire, drink and death in English folk and vernacular song, 1600-1900 (Abingdon, 2016), pp. 52-56.

Steve Roud, Folk Song in England (2017), p. 289.

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The Nightingales Song; Or The Souldiers rare Musick,/ and Maids Recreation.

The Song adviseth Maids to have a care,/ And of a Souldiers Knap-sack to beware.

The Tune of, No, no, not I; Or, Peggy and the Souldier.

[Play each verse by clicking anywhere within its text]


AS I went forth

one Sun=shining Day,

A dainty young Couple

were gathering May:

The one a fair Damosel,

of beauty most clear,

The other a Souldier,

as it doth appear.


With kisses and compliments,

to her he said,

Good morrow sweet honey

thou well favour’d Maid,

I think my self happy,

I met with you here

As you are a Virgin,

and I a Souldier.


And now if you pleased be,

I will you bring,

Wheras you shall hear

the sweet Nightingal sing:

With other rare pastimes,

my skill shall be try’d

If you will walk with me,

to the merry green=wood side.


Sweet S[i]r (said the Damosel

If you will do so,

Then hand in hand with you,

along I will go,

It is recreation

for m[a]ids in the Spring,

To see Flowers grow,

and hear Nightingals sing.


And having thus spoken,

together they went,

Unto a merry green=wood,

where some time they spent,

In walking and talking,

of many an odd thing,

But yet could not hear

the Nightingal sing.


A dainty clear river,

was running them by,

A Bank of sweet Violets,

and Primroses nigh:

Then said the young Gallant,

sit down by this spring,

We’l here take our pleasure

till the Nightingal sing.


The Maid seem’d unwilling,

and said she’d be gone,

And yet she was loath

for to leave him alone,

At last she resolved

her self to thi[s] thing,

To stay till they heard,

the sweet Nightingal sing.


Amongst the swee[t] Flowers

they straightway sat down,

The young=man in kindness,

gave her a green Gown,

He also presented

to her a gold Ring,

‘Cause she should stay there,

till the sweet Nightingal sing.


And having thus done,

he took her about the middle,

And forth of his Knap-Sack,

he pull’d a rare Fiddle,

And plaid her a fit,

made the Vallies to ring,

Oh now (quoth she) I hear

the Nightingal sing.


THen now said the Souldier

‘tis time we give ore,

Nay prithee (quoth she) play

me one Lesson more:

I like boht the setting,

and tuning the string,

Far better than hearing

the Nightingal sing.


He struck up his musick,

unto a high strain,

[A]nd plaid the tune over

again and again:

Gramercy brave Souldier

(quoth she that did bring

Me hither to hear the rare

Nightingal sing.


Their sport being ended,

then homeward they went,

Each one thought the time,

to be very well spent:

It was quoth the Damosel,

a very rare thing,

Whilst thou playd’st thy part,

to hear the Nightingale sing.


At last with a deep sigh,

these words spake she;

I pray thee good Souldier

wilt thou marry me:

Else my hasty pleasure,

sweet Sorrows will bring,

And I may repent I heard

the Nightingal sing.


Oh no, quoth the Souldier,

I may not do so,

Along with my Captain,

to morrow I must go,

But if I come this way,

again the next Spring,

We’l walk once more to hear

the sweet Nightingal sing.


You Maids of the City,

and Country that be

Addicted to pleasure,

take warn[i]ng by me:

Let no flattering Young=men,

tempt ye to this thing,

To go to the wood to hear

the Nightingal sing.


Make bargain before h[a]nd,

for fear you miscarry,

Know whether or no they are

minded to marry:

If I had been wise, and

had done such a thing,

I need not repent I heard

the Nigthtingal sing.

Printed for J. Wright J. [Clarke, W.] Thackeray, and T. Passinger.

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This ballad is included according to the criteria for List A (see Methodology). The evidence presented here is accurate, to the best of our knowledge, as of 1st January 2024.

Shirburn ballads: not included.

Appearances on Ballad Partners' lists: Coles, Vere, Wright and Clarke, 1675; and Thackeray, 1689 ('Nightingal'?).

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: 1639.

No. of known editions c.1560-1711: 5

No. of extant copies: 3

New tune-titles generated: 'The nightingles song' (2 ballads).

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: none known.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library databases: 356 references, with extensive evidence of later collection as a folk-song (Roud no. 140).

POINTS: 0 + 10 + 5 + 10 + 3 + 4 + 0 + 15 = 47

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This box will be used to highlight any new information on this song that might come to light after the launch of the website.

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