I was moved to think about this yesterday when "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" played on my iPod. Here in the States, that song was a top 20 hit in 1971 for Mac and Katy Kissoon, a brother and sister act from Trinidad (pictured above). Here in Columbus, that version got a lot of airplay and I bought the single. It's a cute... well, chirpy little song about a baby bird, or so I thought. The original version, by a Liverpool singer named Lally Stott, never made it past #92 on Billboard though it was a hit in Australia and his is the one I have on my iPod, as it was the only one available digitally some years back when I bought it. A third version by a Scottish band called Middle of the Road was a #1 hit in England. According to Wikipedia, the Scottish version is in the top 40 of all-time best-selling singles (pre-digital era), yet I have never heard the song on an oldies station. Hearing it again after all these years made me wonder why it was such a big hit then and seems to be so forgotten now.
The verse, repeated 3 or 4 times, sounded to me like this: "Where´s your momma gone?/Little baby boy/Where´s your momma gone/Far far away." This alternates with a verse that substitutes "Poppa" for "Momma." The chorus: "Last night I heard my momma singing this song/Ooh wee chirpy chirpy cheep cheep/Woke up this morning and my momma was gone/ Ooh wee chirpy chirpy cheep cheep/Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep chirp." I assumed this was about a baby bird waking up one morning to find his mom and dad gone. The lyrics are just too sad to think about, but the melody is upbeat and, well, chirpy, so you wind up singing along without giving the meaning of the lyrics much thought.
But, is it really about a bird? The title line is the only reference to birds, and it's actually ambigious; it could just as easily have been "Le-dee-da-dee-da, da" or "Yippei-yippie-yo-yo" or any other nonsense syllables. There is also some confusion about one of the lines. Instead of "Little baby boy" as I heard it, some Internet sources give "Little baby gone," though most give "Little baby Don." There is a video of Middle of the Road performing it and she is clearly singing "Don."
So, what the hell? Is this a horrifically sad song about a little boy named Don whose parents are no longer around? Are they dead? Did they get drunk and stay the night somewhere else? Have they broken up and forgotten about Don? Or is is about a bird named Don whose parents were killed as prey? The more I think about it, the creepier it gets. It actually reminds me of a 90s hit called "The Way" by Fastball about parents who leave their home and family never to return because they're looking for "eternal summer slacking." Ask.com confidently states that it is about an abandoned bird, though I kind of like the implication given by another answerer: "That's the way my ex started out. At first he was chirpy, then...."
No matter what interpretation you accept, it's an awfully sad song. That's what I get for thinking too hard about bubblegum lyrics. As for why the song is forgotten now, well, that's probably a topic for a longer blog post about the oldies canon, but generally the more nursery-rhymey the song was, the more likely it is to plunge towards oblivion, no matter how popular it was at one time. The Fifth Estate had a big hit with a Wizard of Oz song, "Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead" but you never hear that, either. Come to think of it, most of the classic bubblegum songs of the 60s are missing in action ("Chewy Chewy," "Yummy Yummy Yummy," "Gimmie Dat Ding") except for the Archies' "Sugar Sugar." I'll have to chew on this and chirp some more on the subject later. The Mac & Katy Kissoon version is below: