The Old Cow Died

19-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, November 9, 1914:  The same old tune, the old cow died. That reminds me of Pa’s increase, namely cows. They arrived today.

Source: Kimball's Dairy Farmer Magazine (1911)
Source: Kimball’s Dairy Farmer Magazine (1911)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Hmm. . . what did Grandma mean by the old cow died?

My first thought: Did a cow on the farm die? . . .Or was Grandma thinking about the end of her romance, and the phrase was an idiom that meant something else?

So I googled it, and discovered that there actually is a song called The Old Cow Died. According to Information Please, the words are:

The Old Cow Died

There was an old man,

and he had an old cow,

But he had no fodder to give her.

So he took up his fiddle and played her the tune:

`Consider, good cow, consider.

This isn’t the time for the grass to grow.

Consider, good cow, consider.’

You can also listen to it (with slightly different words) at: Smithsonian Folkways (click on “play sample”).

I’m still left wondering why the song popped into Grandma’s head. Maybe it was because her father bought some new cows. . . or maybe a somewhat melancholy song was just the right song to hum as she worked her way through the ending of a relationship.

15 thoughts on “The Old Cow Died

  1. I wonder if it’s a reference to weather. In Newfoundland, there’s a saying that, when cold March weather persists far in April, the old cow dies of hunger. Apparently it began to be used to describe just plain, bad weather that wouldn’t allow work to be done. I wonder if this is the same sort of saying.

    1. Interesting. . . Back in the days when many people had agrarian roots they probably were very aware of how bad things could be if the winter was long, and the hay and grains that had been harvested the previous year were in short supply.

    1. I grew up on a small dairy farm–and can remember a few cows dying over the years. It was always really hard to lose both an animal we cared about and a source of income.

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