Every now and then I hear a song for the first time and it becomes an instant earworm. ‘Magpie’, by the English folk band The Unthanks, is just such a song. I don’t often listen to folk music, so this song would probably have passed me by, had it not featured at the end of the first episode of the third series of the BBC comedy, Detectorists.
The series centres around two metal detectorists and is filmed in the bucolic Suffolk countryside. It is a lovely, gentle series, in which not a lot happens. As an archaeologist I’m no fan of metal dectectorists and the damage they can (and so often do) wreak on archaeological sites, but the ending of this particular episode summed up in a beautiful montage what I often wonder about the finds I dig up: who they belonged to, the lives lived, and how the pieces ended up where they ended up. So many stories.
Dectectorists is written, directed by and stars the talented Mackenzie Crook, and co-stars Toby Jones. It is currently midway through its third series, broadcast on BBC4, and can be viewed on catch-up on the BBC iPlayer.
‘Magpie’ is a track on The Unthanks’ 2015 album Mount the Air, and uses the traditional English nursery rhyme about the magpie to wonderful effect, with additional lyrics emphasising a pagan theme and music by Dave Dodds. Here’s the full version of the song, with a fan-made video:
Here are The Unthanks performing the song live on Later with Jools Holland:
The magpie (Pica pica) is a beautiful black and white corvid, a familiar bird in the English countryside and one with a rich tradition of symbolism and folk history attached to it.
I invariably automatically count out the number according to the rhyme when I see a group of magpies (or rarely a singleton: they are gregarious birds). Apparently Crook was inspired by The Unthanks’ song, and certainly the magpie theme has carried on into the second episode, with magpies being featured at the start and finish. I wonder if they will prove to be more significant or symbolic as the series progresses.