This song is actually one of our oldest folksongs and versions of it can be traced back to the early seventeenth century (“The Three Ravens”). The story of the oldest versions is scarcely credible – the ravens, seeking food, spot a slain knight lying in a field. However, in an apparent act of random charity, a pregnant doe carries off his body on her back and buries him (How, one might ask?), presumably to stop the ravens mutilating his body. That done, the doe dies. The doe’s careful attention to the dead knight is then expressed as a wish that would that every gentleman had such a lady to lavish so much care on him. The story is so strange that one is tempted to read it as an allegory, perhaps of devotion and love.
That aside, it was often printed in anthologies of Scottish songs and appeared quite regularly in oral tradition. Its popularity in the twentieth century seems to have taken off, with knock-about versions being sung by farmers and even by the Royal Navy, and it is still being collected from source singers in England to this d ay. It often appears, as in Bob Cross’s case, to tunes such as “Ye Banks and Braes,” “The Old Hundredth,” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” and concentrates on the elements of the hungry birds wanting to eat a dead ox/horse but then being shot by the farmer, whilst other elements of the old version have been lost. These burlesque versions seem to have originated in America in the mid-nineteenth century. Most modern versions are very rustic, and a typical last verse is:
“The farmer loaded shot and shell
And blew those crows to ******* hell.”