The Birds (1963): ‘Risseldy Rosseldy’

The Birds School 2

A couple of early incidents featuring agitated lone gulls – a swift strike as Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) prepares to dock her motorboat, and another which annihilates itself in the Brenner front door – progress into a fully-fledged attack on Cathy Brenner’s (Veronica Cartwright) birthday party, as the youngster celebrates turning twelve. Later that evening a swarm of sparrows invade the Brenner home through the chimney. And the following morning Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy) pays a visit to her neighbour, Dan Fawcett, only to find the farmer dead in the corner of his room, his eyes all pecked out.

So Lydia asks Melanie to drive in her top-down Aston Martin to the schoolhouse, to check on Cathy’s well-being. As she pulls up to the school steps, we can hear the schoolchildren inside – led by schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) – reciting a folk song. Repetitive, cycling back upon its hook which seems filled with nonsense words, the children’s singing continues as Melanie sits smoking her cigarette in the playground, waiting for class to end. But as though enticed by the tune, crows gather in the background, readying another onslaught.

* * *

The tune sung by the schoolchildren is an alternate, American version of a traditional Scottish folk song, ‘Wee Cooper O’Fife’. The song details a cooper who beats his wife for refusing to cook, sew, and clean:

‘Wee Cooper O’Fife’ (1)

There was a wee Cooper wha lived in Fife,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
And he has gotten a gentle wife,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

She wadna bake, nor she wadna brew,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
For the spoiling o’ her comely hue,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

She wadna card, nor she wadna spin,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
For the shamin’ o’ her gentle kin,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

She wadna wash, nor she wadna wring,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
For the spoiling o’ her gowden ring,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

The Cooper has gane to his woo’ pack,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
And he’s laid a sheep’s skin on his wife’s ba’ck,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

It’s I’ll no thrash ye for your gentle kin,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
But I will thrash my ain sheep’s skin,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

Oh I will bake, and I will brew,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
And nae mair think o’ my comely hue,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

Oh I will card, and I will spin,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
And nae main think o’ my gentle kin,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

Oh I will wash, and I will wring,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
and nae mair think o’ my gowden ring,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

Al ye wha ha’e gotten a gentle wife,
Nickety, Nackety, noo, noo, noo,
Just you send for the wee Cooper o’ Fife,
Hey Willy Wallacky, hoo John Dougal,
A lane, quo’Rushity, roue, roue, roue.

The close of this traditional composition even appears to offer the cooper’s services to other husbands, should they too find themselves suffering the strains of a ‘gentle wife’ unwilling to work. ‘Wee Cooper O’Fife’ is first referred to in print in texts from the late 1880s. A version was recorded by Burl Ives for his 1941 debut album Okeh Presents the Wayfaring Stranger, and the song has since been performed by folk artists including Hedy West, Ed McCurdy, Ian Campbell, and Jean Redpath.

An intermediary version exists somewhere between the traditional take, with its thick Scottish accent, and the American reformulation. This version contains broadly the same verse content as ‘Wee Cooper O’Fife’, but introduces ‘risselty rosselty’ to the hook in place of Scottish names and exclamations:

‘Wee Cooper O’Fife’ (2)

There was a wee cooper lived in Fife, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo, 
And he has tae’n a gentle wife, 
Risselty rosselty, hey, pomposity, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo.

She wouldna card and she wouldna spin, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo, 
For shamin’ o’her gentle kin, 
Risselty rosselty, hey, pomposity, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo.

She wouldna bake and she wouldna brew, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo, 
For spoilin’ of her gentle hue, 
Risselty rosselty, hey, pomposity, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo.

She called him a dirty Hieland whelp, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo, 
If you want yer dinner go get it yourself, 
Risselty rosselty, hey, pomposity, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo.

The cooper’s awa tae his wool-pack, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo, 
And lain a sheepskin across her back, 
Risselty rosselty, hey, pomposity, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo.

I’ll no thrash you, for your gentle kin, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo, 
But I will thrash my ain sheep-skin, 
Risselty rosselty, hey, pomposity, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo.

He’s laid the sheepskin across her back, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo, 
And with a good stick he went whickety-whack, 
Risselty rosselty, hey, pomposity, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo.

Oh I will card and I will spin, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo, 
And think nae mair of my gentle kin, 
Risselty rosselty, hey, pomposity, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo.

She drew the table and spread the board, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo, 
And “My dear husband” was every word, 
Risselty rosselty, hey, pomposity, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo.

All you who have gotten a gentle wife, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo, 
Just send ye for the cooper of Fife,
Risselty rosselty, hey, pomposity, 
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo.

The American version of ‘Wee Cooper O’Fife’ goes by the name ‘Risseldy Rosseldy’ or ‘Risselty Rosselty’. Bawdy texts of the song exist – including lines such as ‘My wife she’s a hure of aw the sluts’, and one common variant which sees the wife dying in shame because ‘she pishit in the bed’ – but generally the American version is softer on the wife-beating message. She is still slovenly, but escapes overt violent punishment:

‘Risselty Rosselty’

I married a wife in the month of June,
Risselty rosselty, now now now,
I carried her off by the light of the moon,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, nickety nackety,
Retrical quality, willaby wallaby now now now.

She combed her hair but once a year,
Risselty rosselty, now now now,
With every rake she gave a tear,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, nickety nackety,
Retrical quality, willaby wallaby now now now.

She swept the floor but once a year,
Risselty rosselty, now now now,
She swore her broom was much too dear,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, nickety nackety,
Retrical quality, willaby wallaby now now now.

She churned the butter in dad’s old boot,
Risselty rosselty, now now now,
And for a dasher she uses her foot,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, nickety nackety,
Retrical quality, willaby wallaby now now now.

The butter came out a grizzledy gray,
Risselty rosselty, now now now,
The cheese took legs and ran away,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, nickety nackety,
Retrical quality, willaby wallaby now now now.

Whenever the song actually originated in Britain, it was appearing in print in the United States by the turn of the twentieth century. Chubby Parker made several recordings, under the title ‘Nickety, Nackety, Now, Now, Now’, from 1927; and Ridgel’s Fountain Citians recorded their take on ‘The Nick Nack Song’ in 1930. Pete Seeger recorded ‘Risselty-Rosselty’ as the second track of his 1950 album Darling Corey. His sister, Peggy Seeger, also took up the song, adding an oft-incorporated final verse which advises the husband to attend his own needs and leave his wife be:

The butter and cheese is on the shelf,
Risselty rosselty, now now now,
If you want any more you can sing it yourself,
Risselty rosselty, hey bombosity, nickety nackety,
Retrical quality, willaby wallaby now now now.

* * *

The version of ‘Risseldy Rosseldy’ which features in the schoolhouse scene in The Birds largely follows the American set of lyrics above, with a few modifications: a different sequence of nonsense terms, with ‘willickey wallackey’ a combination of both ‘willaby wallaby’ and ‘Willy Wallacky’, and ‘rustical quality’ a sensible alternative to ‘retrical quality’; a couple of added verses, as the wife is asked to wash as well as sweep the floor, and for the first time chases a ‘critter’; and more repetition.

These changes were the product of scriptwriter Evan Hunter. Asked by Hitchcock to come up with a song for the scene, Hunter turned to his three young sons, who were attending Pound Ridge school in Westchester County, New York. His sons sang the song in class, and Hunter apparently obtained the lyrics via their schoolteacher. As the song was in the public domain, copyright proved no obstacle; but in early 1962, Hunter was called by Hitchcock’s assistant, Peggy Robertson, and told to devise original verses to cover the scene’s duration. Hunter was obliged to join the American Society of Publishers and Composers before his lyrics could be admitted to the big screen.

The lyrics of the song as sung by the schoolchildren in The Birds, and a knowledge of the song’s origins as ‘Wee Cooper O’Fife’, add another unsettling layer to a scene full of dramatic tension, peculiarly calm but with an oppressive sense of foreboding. This is an uncomfortable song for children to be singing, and it comments obliquely on the dynamics of The Birds, where Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) alternately buffets and is buffeted by the competing claims of Lydia, Melanie, and Annie, his former flame. The song seems to reflect and prefigure a cruel household.

‘Risseldy Rosseldy’ in The Birds

I married my wife in the month of June,
Risseldy rosseldy, now, now, now,
I brought her home by the light of the moon,
Risseldy rosseldy, heyjohnny dosselty,
Nickety nackety, rustical quality,
Willickey wallackey now, now, now.

She combed her hair but once a year,
Risseldy rosseldy, now, now, now,
With every stroke, she shed a tear,
Risseldy rosseldy, heyjohnny dosselty,
Rustical quality, risseldy rosseldy,
Now, now, now.

I brought her home by the light of the moon,
Risselty-rosselty, heyjohnny dosselty,
Nickety-nackety, rustical quality,
Willickey-wallackey now, now, now.

She combed her hair but once a year,
Risseldy rosseldy, now, now, now,
With every stroke, she shed a tear,
Risseldy rosseldy, heyjohnny dosselty,
Nickety nackety, rustical quality,
Willickey wallackey now, now, now.

She swept up the floor but once a year,
Risseldy rosseldy, now, now, now,
She said that brooms were much too dear,
Risseldy rosseldy, heyjohnny dosselty,
Nickety nackety, rustical quality,
Willickey wallackey now, now, now.

She churned the butter in her dad’s old boot,
Risseldy rosseldy, now, now, now,
And for a catch, she used her foot,
Risseldy rosseldy, heyjohnny dosselty,
Nickety nackety, rustical quality,
Willickey wallackey now, now, now.

The butter, it came out a grisly grey,
Risseldy-rosseldy, now, now, now,
The cheese took legs and ran away,
Risseldy rosseldy, heyjohnny dosselty,
Nickety nackety, rustical quality,
Willickey wallackey now, now, now.

She let the critter get away,
Risseldy rosseldy, heyjohnny dosselty,
Nickety nackety, rustical quality,
Willickey wallackey now, now, now.

I asked my wife to wash the floor,
Risseldy rosseldy, now, now, now,
She gave me my hat and she showed me the door,
Risseldy rosseldy, heyjohnny dosselty,
Nickety nackety, rustical quality,
Now, now, now.

I married my wife in the month of June,
Risseldy rosseldy, now, now, now,
I brought her home by the light of the moon,
Risseldy rosseldy, heyjohnny dosselty,
Nickety nackety, rustical quality,
Willickey wallackey now, now, now.

She combed her hair but once a year,
Risseldy rosseldy, heyjohnny dosselty,
Nickety nackety, rustical quality,
Willickey wallackey now, now, now,
Risseldy rosseldy, now, now, now.