This is the second of the Eleven Folksongs for Schools that Vaughan Williams arranged for W.G. McNaught, who published them in Novello's School Songs, a huge collection over which McNaught was editor. The 11 songs, all for unison chorus and piano accompaniment, appeared in Book 232, and The Cuckoo and the Nightingale was its song No. 1129. In general, the songs in the set are rather simple in both subject matter and music, but Vaughan Williams' contribution here was never less than professional and must be regarded as a great service in the realm of folk music.
The song's traditional text tells of a young man who sings to his girlfriend as they stroll along, amid a beautiful spring scene, with the cuckoo and nightingale also chirping their songs of joy. Actually, the text is similar to that in another Vaughan Williams folk song arrangement, The Springtime of the Year (1913), wherein a sailor and his lover are singing on a bright spring day. The tune in The Cuckoo and the Nightingale is simple in its nonchalance, exhibiting an almost march-like gait, but having an ending that floats sweetly in the upper ranges before a closing descent. There are five verses, the last of which was taken from another ballad.