Few songs have enjoyed the popularity of “Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night,” enduring for over 500 years! The earliest known written version, “The Fox and Goose,” also known as “The False Fox,” was a Middle English poem dating from the fifteenth century, now housed in the British Museum, London.
The OXFORD BOOK OF NURSERY RHYMES states:
“This rollicking song is traditional in both England and America…. The song has descended from a carol which was probably already old when it happened to be written down on the flyleaf of a manuscript, c. 1500 (Royal MS 19 B. iv). The first verse went:
“It fell ageyns the next nyght
the fox yede to with all his myghte,
with-outen cole or candlelight,
whan that he cam vnto the toowne.”
Like most folk songs, there have been many versions of “The Fox.”
The lyrics of this song suggest that it is derived from the Aesop-style “animal debate” theme popular in Europe at the time. In some versions, it talked about a fox debating with his critics that he’s stealing to support a sick wife and many children at home
“I haue a wyf, and sche lyeth seke;
Many smale whelppis sche haue to eke,
Many bonys they must pike,
Will they ley a-downe.”
This may have been a social comment on the severe protection by the feudal estates of their hunting rights against local villagers who were starving. Catching a pheasant was a hanging offense.
That it’s popularity continued is evidenced by the song’s appearance in Joseph Ritson’s Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1810), (under the name “Dame Widdle Waddle”).
Affection for “Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” continued into the twentieth century and was recorded in the 1950s and 60s by artists including Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Odetta, Salli Terri, The Smothers Brothers, The Brothers Four, Tom Glazier, Peter Paul and Mary, Nickel Creek, Tom Chapin, and Garrison Keillor, to name a few. Many performances, including some by the previous-mentioned artists, can be found on YouTube.
Peter Spier’s illustrated version of the song won the Caldecott Medal in 1961 (now nearly sixty years ago!). In this new edition, Taylor Herrington has beautifully illustrated the song in a realistic, yet not too graphic depiction.
The repetition at the end of each verse encourages children to begin singing along by the second verse.
Follow the wily fox as he roams a sleepy New England town in search of a meal, with tones and textures so vivid you can almost hear the crackle of crisp fall leaves and the ripples of the river in the moonlight.