Bird in a Cage History

Bird in a Cage History

This is an obscure oldtime/bluegrass song that is found in the mountain region. I learned my version in North Carolina. I know Jean Ritchie did a version of the song which I've never heard and there are a few other versions.

The song is from the same family as the True Lover’s Farewell songs which include the closely related Down in the Valley songs. The most famous country recordings were down in the 1920-30s as Birmingham Jail. Carl Sandburg collected a version of it that was printed in 1927. Sandburg says:

"In the mountains of Kentucky there was sung and old lyric of English origin, Down In The Valley. And there were jailbirds in Lexington, KY who built and wove from this older song with lines telling their sweethearts where to send letters (Birmingham Jail)... Charles Hoening, working with a threshing crew near Lexington, heard four Negroes, harvest hands go off by themselves after supper, among straw stacks to sing. The gloaming crept on, an evening star came, a rising moon climbed the horizon dusk and mist. They sang that song (Bird in A Cage) over and over and they knew how to sing it."

Bird in a Cage (sung to the tune of Down in the Valley)

Bird in a cage love,
Bird in a cage.
Waiting for Willie,
To come back to me.

The version I learned is a different melody in 4/4 time. Here's another early version collected by Alan Lomax in 1934:

Kentucky version in Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs, 1934.

Bird in a cage, love, bird in a cage,
Dying for freedom, Ever a slave.
Ever a slave, dear, ever a slave,
Dying for freedom, ever a slave.

Jean Ritchie said of her version of Bird in a Cage, "I wrote it in the '60s, but I didn't record it until 1970, on my record, "Clear Waters Remembered."

One verse appears in Belden's 1909 version: "From the MS miscellany of William Dresia of Columbus, Kansas, sent to me by Miss Lowry in 1909." H. M. Belden, ed., 1940, "Ballads and Songs," pp. 488-489.

DOWN IN THE VALLEY Belden, 1910

Down in the valley, valley so low,
Late in the evening, here the train blow.
The train, love, hear the train blow;
Late in the evening, hear the train blow.

So build me a mansion, build it so high
So I can see my true love go by,
See her go by, love, see her go by,
So I can see my true love go by.

Go write me a letter, send it by mail,
Bake* it and stamp it to the Birmingham jail.
Birmingham jail, love, Birmingham jail,
Bake* it and stamp it to the Birmingham jail.

Bird In A Cage is symbolic of a woman trapped in a relationship from which she can’t escape. With a background set in the Blue Ridge Mountains the bird drops the key to the jail door that could free the transparent woman whose face and hands are locked behind jail bars.


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