Tag Archives: nursery rhyme

Naughty Nursery Rhyme- Driving Down the Highway

Context: My informant went to elementary school in the ‘70s and sang me this song he said was used to pick on other kids you didn’t like. He told me it was a song that everyone knew, and everyone was afraid to have it sung to them. He remembers it today because of how funny he thought it was as a child.

Song Lyrics: 

    Driving down the highway, highway 64

    [Name] ripped a big one, it blew out the door

    Engine couldn’t stand it

    Engine blew apart

    All because of [name]’s supersonic fart

My thoughts: This definitely sounds like a song you would sing to make fun of friends and enemies. I hadn’t heard this song, and no one my age that I’ve talked to knows this song, so it must have gotten less popular as the years went on. I looked it up and found different versions for different regions. Here’s a link to an archive by hosted by Straight Dope where you can find different versions of this song, and other “naughty kid nursery rhymes” https://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/archive/index.php/t-271331.html

The Crooked Man- Nursery Rhyme

Main Piece:

Subject: (Singing) There was a crooked man, who walked a crooked mile. He found a crooked six pence against a crooked stile. He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse. And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Interviewer: That is so spooky… where did you hear this?

Subject: My mother would sing it to me before I went to sleep when I was younger and I never forgot it.

Interviewer: Did that make you scared?

Subject: Um… no not really. I didn’t notice any, uh, I guess, sinister tones in the lyrics or the purpose of the song until I got older. Then I sung it again and I was like wait. That’s pretty creepy.

Interviewer: Yeah like the same thing happened to me. Something about it is just weird.

Subject: Yeah it’s amazing what we don’t pick up on when we’re kids right?

Context: The subject is my 17-year-old younger brother in his senior year of high school. We have been quarantined together due to the Coronavirus pandemic and staying at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner, we were sitting in the dark in the living room and I asked him to tell me any folklore he learned when he was a child. He proceeded to sing this nursery rhyme.

Interpretation: I am familiar with this particular nursery rhyme in the same way my brother is. My mother used to sing it around the house. When I got older and recounted it with my siblings, we all had the same realization that it was quite an unsettling tune. We clearly are not the only one to pick up on its creepiness, because the nursery rhyme was featured in the horror film “The Conjuring 2” in 2016. And later in the same year, the nursery rhyme actually got a movie solely inspired from it, titled “The Crooked Man”, about a nursery rhyme that awakens a demonic figure. So I was curious about the origins of the nursery rhyme, what the lyrics are really about, and if they intended to be creepy. Upon research, I discovered the rhyme is actually about Scotland gaining political and religious freedom England. The “crooked man” is about the general who signed the agreement and the “crooked stile” supposedly refers to the border between England and Scotland. I found it super fascinating that a nursery rhyme about a historical event could be interpreted and appropriated so differently as a horrifying tune.

Lizzie Borden – Nursery Rhyme

Main Piece:

Subject: I grew up in the town next to Lizzie Borden… where Lizzie Borden was. Lizzie Borden was from Fall River and I was from Tiverton, the town over. And I can remember I took pottery classes right near Lizzie Borden’s house. We all knew the story of Lizzie Borden. That she took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. She didn’t really like her mother apparently. But when she saw how sad it made her dad, she gave her father forty-one. 

*Singing* Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one. 

It was a nursery rhyme! As kids you know… because it happened so close to where we all lived and grew up… that was sort of scary. Somebody would smack their parent with an axe forty times… and then do it again forty-one times! Lizzie Borden!

Context: The subject is a white middle-aged male of Ashkenazi and Eastern-European descent. He was born and raised in Tiverton, Rhode Island with his parents and two siblings. He also happens to be my father, and we are currently quarantined together at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner one night, I was sitting with him in my dimly lit living room, and I asked if he would share with me any folk beliefs he had heard through his family.

Interpretation: I first discovered the Lizzie Borden nursery rhyme when I watched the biographical film Lizzie starring Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny. It was a sort of feminist approach to the Lizzie Borden story. Lizzie falls in love with a woman and her parents are depicted as emotionally abusive and controlling. Though I’m not certain of the historical accuracy of the film, because it was my introduction to Lizzie Borden, whenever I heard the nursery rhyme, I always felt a bit defensive over her. The nursery rhyme obviously does not leave much room for nuance. Lizzie is a horrifying figure in it. Hearing my father’s account of how afraid he was of Lizzie, and how villainous she was to him as a child made me think about what other nursery rhymes have a more complicated background than how they are interpreted.

Ms. Lucy Nursery Rhyme

  • Context: The informants are brothers A, 19, and B, 15. This transcription was taken from an argument between the brothers over the “correct” words to the nursery rhyme about “Ms. Lucy.” The nursery rhyme is used mostly as a schoolyard game, sometimes accompanied by a hand-game the brothers tell me, but in their argument they were only debating the words of the rhyme itself. 
  • Text:

B: It starts off ‘Ms. Lucy has a baby, his name was tiny Tim…’

A: No it doesn’t, it goes ‘Ms. Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a…”

B: No that’s not what I’m talking about!

A: Well, what are you talking about? 

B: I’m talking about the one mom taught us.

A: Okay, fine, what one?

B: ‘Ms. Lucy had a baby, his name was Tiny Tim

She put him in the bathtub, to see if he could swim

He drank up all the water, he ate up all the soap

He tried to eat the bath tub, but it wouldn’t go down his throat

Ms. Lucy called the doctor, Ms. Lucy called the nurse,

Ms. Lucy called the baby with the alligator purse 

Mumps said the doctor, Measles said the nurse, 

Nonsense said the lady with the alligator purse 

Penicillin said the doctor, castor oil said the nurse,

Pizza said the lady with the alligator purse

Out went the doctor, out went the nurse, out went the lady with the allegator purse’

A: Okay. Yeah, but I was talking about the other version.

B: What’s your version?

A (B starts singing along): 

‘Ms. Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell (ding ding)

Ms. Lucy went to heaven and the steamboat went to 

Hello operator, give me number 9, if you disconnect me I’ll chop off your 

Behind the ‘fridgerator, there was a piece of glass 

Ms. Lucy sat upon it and cut her big fat 

Ask me no more questions, tell me no more lies

The boys are in the bathroom zipping up their 

Flies are in the meadow, bees are in the park

Ms. Lucy and her boyfriend kissing in the D-A-R-K D-A-R-K 

Dark dark dark’

B: I know that one.

A: Is that where you stop?

B: What do you mean?

A: Mine keeps going. It goes… 

‘Darker than the ocean, darker than the sea 

Darker than the underwear my Mommy puts on me’ 

  • Analysis: I had also learned the Ms. Lucy version that informant B was singing from my mother and many of my friends would play it with me as a hand game on the play ground in elementary school. Once I entered middle-school, the version that informant A sang became popular at school. But at my school, we continued the rhyme even further. We would sing… 

‘Me is very special, Me is very great’ 

And then we would have different variations after those lyrics. Usually ending with… 

‘I kicked him over London, I kicked him over France

I kicked him over the USA and saw his underpants’

I think the reason the versions change is because of the intended audience. The first version, presented by informant B, is much more suitable for children. It is funny because of the motif of the alligator purse and the fact that she wants the baby to eat pizza, which is a food often enjoyed by children. The version presented by informant A is much more rich with “inappropriate” lingo. At the end of each verse, it leads into the next by using near rhyme with a swear word. For example “hell” goes to “hello” and “ass” goes to “ask.” In addition, there are sexual references, both to male genitalia and to Ms. Lucy and her boyfriend kissing in the dark. I asked the meaning of the “dark underwear that mommy puts on me,” and there was a consensus that it was referring to underwear stained by period blood. This version of the nursery rhyme often occurs when children are in middle school, which makes sense because that’s often when you start using swear words, have your first kiss, and begin menstruating.

For other versions, visit https://www.bussongs.com/songs/miss-lucy-had-a-steam-boat

“Miss Lucy Had a Steam Boat: Nursery Rhymes & Kids’ Songs.” Nursery Rhymes & Kids’ Songs | BusSongs.com, 9 July 2008, www.bussongs.com/songs/miss-lucy-had-a-steam-boat.

“A frog walks into a bank” Joke

Context: I asked the 20-year-old informant from New Jersey if there were any jokes, pranks, or games that hold a certain significance in his family. He told me that there was one joke that his grandfather always tells at family gatherings. The joke is especially told if there is a guest at the gathering who has never heard it before. The informant also mentioned that in recent years, he and his father have started to recite the joke more and more.

Piece: “So, one Tuesday afternoon, a frog walks into the local bank to take out a loan. He walks up to the bank teller, her name is Mrs. Patty Whack. Frog sees her nametag and says, ‘Hi Mrs. Whack. I would like to take out a loan today.’ And Mrs. Whack is thrown off because, you know, usually humans are the ones who take out loans, not frogs. So Mrs. Whack says, ‘Umm…This is peculiar, but, you know what, you’re talking, so let’s just get this over with. If you want a loan, you must really be something. So, tell me about yourself. What’s your name? What’s your background?’ The frog responded, ‘Well, my name is Jerry and actually, you wouldn’t believe this, but my father is Mick Jagger.’ And Mrs. Whack says, “Oh! Well I guess he’s kind of got a froggy face, so it makes sense that he would, like, carry over to you. Maybe he’s a frog himself.’ And Jerry says, “Oh no. Don’t say that about my dad. That’s not a nice thing to say about him.’ And then Mrs. Whack says, ‘I’m so sorry. Well, let’s see. Can I have some form of collateral for this loan?’ And Jerry takes out a little pink elephant, a special elephant, and he says, “Hey, you know, this is kind of ironic. Elephants are usually larger than frogs, but here I am with like a really tiny elephant in my hand.’ Mrs. Whack chuckles and says, ‘Ok, haha! Let me take this. It’s not the greatest collateral, but I’ll take it. And let me speak to my manager in the back.’ So she goes to the back of the room, and she says to the manager, ‘You know, I’ve got this frog who wants to take out a loan. And for collateral, all he has given me is this like little pink porcelain elephant. Do you know anything about this little pink elephant? Is it valuable or whatever?’

And the manager says to her, ‘It’s a knick-knack, Patty Whack. Give the frog a loan. His old man is a Rolling Stone.’

Analysis: Upon hearing this joke, I immediately recognized a connection to another subgenre of jokes: “A blank walks in a bar…” jokes. These types of jokes also often have an anthropomorphized animal as the main subject. It’s often a horse or a duck, and, in certain examples, I have also seen people use a frog as a subject of the joke. Those jokes often usually begin with a confused bartender asking the animal how they are able to walk and talk or why they have even come to the bar. The punchline of this particular joke is a play on a well-known line from a popular British nursery rhyme, “The Old Man.” In this nursery rhyme, the most famous line is, “With a knick knack paddy whack, give a dog a bone. This old man is a rolling stone.”

 

 

Don’t let the bugs bite

Text

“Sleep tight, don’t let the bugs bite. If they do hit ‘em with a shoe, and they’ll turn black and blue!”

 

Background

The informant knows this saying because her parents would always say it to her right before she went to sleep every night. It reminds her of childhood and she remembers that when she was younger, it comforted her because it gave her a sense of power over the things she couldn’t control (like monsters under the bed or in this case, bugs in the bed). She currently thinks it’s just a silly rhyme but would also like to pass it on to her children some day.

 

Context

The informant is a college student in Southern California and grew up in Orange County. She grew up in a nice area and went to a local public school.

 

Thoughts

Interestingly enough, one time when I was babysitting, I said “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite!” to the kid I was babysitting because I remembered that my mother use to always say that to me. To my surprise, the boy got very upset and scared that there were bugs in his bed. When I was a kid, I knew that this was a very common phrase, so I did not take it literally, but I saw firsthand how this nursery rhyme might be scary to young children. This version that the informant told me about fixes that problem by giving the child some sense of control over this fictional bed bugs by giving him or her a sufficient way to take care of the problem (by hitting the bed bugs with a shoe).

 

Tuberculosis in Swedish Nursery Rhymes

The Folklore:

I en sal på Lasarettet

I en sal på lasarettet

där de vita sängar står

låg en liten bröstsjuk flicka

blek och tärd med lockigt hår.

Allas hjärtan vann den lilla
där hon låg så mild och god.
Bar sin smärta utan klagan
med ett barnsligt tålamod.

Så en dag hon frågar läkarn,
som vid hennes sida stod:
Får jag komma hem till påsken
till min egen lilla mor?

Läkarn svarar då den lilla:
Nej mitt barn, det får du ej,
men till pingsten kan det hända
du får komma hem till mor.

Pingsten kom med gröna björkar
blomsterklädd står mark och äng,
men den lilla sjuka flickan
låg där ständigt i sin säng.

Så på nytt hon frågar läkarn
som vid hennes sida står:
Får jag komma hem till hösten
till min egen lilla mor?

Läkarn svarar ej den lilla,
men strök sakta hennes hår,
och med tårar i sitt öga
vänder han sig om och går.

Nu hon slumrar uti mullen
slumrar sött i snövit skrud.
Från sin tåligt burna längtan
har hon farit upp till Gud.

In a Ward at the Hospital

In a ward at the hospital
where the white beds stand
lay a small consumptive girl
pale and haggard with curly hair.

Everyone’s hearts the small one won
where she lay, so mild and virtuous.
She bore the pain without lament,
with a naive patience.

Then one day she asked the doctor
standing at her side:
Can I come home for Easter
to my own dear mama?

The doctor answered the small one:
No, my child, you can not,
but for Pentecost it may be
that you could come home to mother.

Pentecost came with green birches
with field and meadow in floral dress,
but the little sickly girl
still lay there in her bed.

So again she asked the doctor
standing at her side:
Can I come home in the fall
to my own dear mama?

The doctor answered not the small one,
but slowly caressed her hair.
And with tears in his eye
he turned around and walked away.

Now she’s slumbering under the loam,
slumbering sweetly in snow-white raiments.
From her patiently borne longing
she has fled up to God.

E: Where did you first hear this?

P: My mother sang it to me when I was really young.

E: Where did she learn it from?

P: She learned it from her mother and her mother alike. Also, despite our age differences my mom also sang it to my older siblings.

E: Do you know any history into its conception?

P: In the 1800’s TB was a major problem across Europe and a large amount of people were impacted by the deaths that occurred. Since this disease was such central aspect of peoples’ lives, it was reflected in the literature of the time.

E: What does this rhyme mean to you?

P: Initially it was just a song to me and I did not understand the meaning behind the lyrics. However, when I got older my mom brought the song to me and I understood the real context of it. This made me realize how dark of an outlook on life people had during this time period.

Context:

My informant was born in Sweden and raised in the United States. His entire family prior was from Sweden. He’s never brought up stories from his culture and was ecstatic when I asked him to participate. We sat in a very casual setting.

Analysis:

I’ve never heard a Nursery Rhyme be as overtly somber, but it does remind me of Ring Around the Rosies. Both are about terrible illnesses and reactions to them. As I further conversed with my informant I found out for the nearly half the year it’s dark around 18 hours a day. This creates a darker atmosphere and allows for the creation of more dark works.

“Ich bin klein”

Main piece:

Ich bin klein

mein Herz ist rein

darf niemand drin wohnen

als Jesus allein.

 

Informant’s English translation:

 

I am small,

My heart is pure,

So no one will live in my heart but Jesus alone.

 

Context: The informant (DB) is a first generation immigrant from Germany; her mother is from Silesia, Germany, and her father is from what was previously known as East Prussia, so she is fluent in both German and English. She was raised Christian but does not consider herself very religious. DB grew up in Orlando, Florida, has two kids, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Our conversation took place while eating quesadillas for lunch our home in Atlanta. The informant heard this nursery rhyme from her mother, who heard it from her mother, who heard it from her mother. She values it because it’s “such a simple yet sweet prayer that any child can understand.” DB remembers “Ich bin klein” as the one solitary moment she shared with her mother before bed; despite their busy life and large family, they were always able to regroup and return to each and God at the end of the day.   

Personal thoughts: Popular Christian prayers tend to involve long sentences or invoke complex biblical concepts, which can be especially confusing for children. Take the Lord’s Prayer, for instance – one line reads: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” An 8-year-old has no grasp on temptation or evilness. Although these kinds of prayers are touted to be family friendly, many times children will simply recite them word-for-word without actually being able to fully understand what they are saying. The beauty of the “Ich bin klein” prayer is that it begins by reinforcing the innocence and simplicity of child (“I am small / my heart is pure”), which are words a child can easily grasp, and ends with an affirmation that the child reciting the prayer loves Jesus (“So no one will live in my heart by Jesus alone”). Bam. Easy. No mumbo jumbo about debts and trespassing – just an affirmation of a child’s purity and love for Jesus.

Heal, Heal, Butt of a Frog

“Sana Sana Culo de rana. Si no sana hoy sanara manana.”

(Heal, heal, butt of a frog, if it doesn’t heal today, it’ll heal tomorrow.)

 

Interviewer: What is being performed?

 

Informant: Ritual Song by Steph Elmir (Genre: Childhood)

 

Interviewer: What is the background information about the performance? Why do you know or like this piece? Where or who did you learn it from?

 

Informant: It’s a nursery rhyme in Spanish, I love it because it is used after someone is hurt. My mom taught me this in Miami. It’s silly and makes children laugh.

 

Interviewer: What country and what region of that country are you from?

 

Informant: USA- Miami

 

Interviewer: Do you belong to a specific religious or social sub group that tells this story?

 

Informant: Catholic/ Hinduran/Lebanese Descent

 

Interviewer: Where did you first hear the story?

 

Informant: My mom. My home.

 

Interviewer: What do you think the origins of this story might be?

 

Informant: Frogs have magical qualities in Latino Culture and are considered good luck.

 

Interviewer: What does it mean to you?

 

Informant: It makes me feel safe. It reminds me of home and a good relationship with my mom.

 

Context of the performance– Conversation with classmate before class

 

Thoughts about the piece–  Relating childhood folkways is an emotional experience for most students living far from home. Mothers in many cultures use song to comfort their children. Here is a video of the song in Spanish, featuring Kermit the frog. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kw14B0sclFw

Is it culito (ass) or colita (butt)? That seems to depend on which country you are from: http://remezcla.com/lists/culture/colita-vs-culito/

 

 

Armenian Rabbit Nursery Rhyme

Context: The informant, who is Armenian, and I were having a conversation on April 24th, the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. She shared this nursery rhyme about two rabbits with me during this conversation.

Interview Transcript: 

Informant: This one is a fun nursery rhyme. I think this was during, like, this came out originally, this rhyme, during the, um, the Soviet Union, to kind of symbolize Stalin. Which is hilarious because the rhyme basically goes, like: One rabbit is asking another rabbit, um, which symbolizes two innocent Armenian people, “Oh, like, what are you doing there? Why are you hiding under that tree? Like, come over to, um, come over to this other person’s house.” And he’s like “No, no, no, no, no. I won’t go to that other person’s house because a great big dog will come and… eat my tail away.” And… it’s completely illogical. There’s no reason why that would happen, but… that’s the idea. It’s to enforce paranoia into everyone. Like, don’t go outside, don’t interact with other people, like keep to yourself, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Me: What influence did Stalin have on Armenia? Was it more like, hearing about it? Or did…

Informant: No, the USSR owned Armenia. From 19… From the end of 1915 after the genocide, after they helped end the genocide, when they invaded Armenia and kicked Turkey out, um, during the genocide, which today, today commemorates the anniversary of it, um… So basically, the USSR reigned over Armenia just like it reigned all over all the other states in the Soviet block, um, by terrorizing the people. Like, economically the country… Armenia wasn’t doing as badly as it is now, ’cause it was under the influence of the Russian economy, which back then wasn’t doing that badly. It was bad for the people, but for the wealthy, who were like trading with Armenia, because Armenia has… had, before it was exploited for all of its stuff, had a very good produce industry, and, um, a very high quality of education. So we had a lot of people, like that other people knew of, who were getting, like, taken in by Russian soldiers and like taken to Russia and used for like, the space race or for research or whatever it may be. So you could be taken away from your home for some kind of advantage at any time. So the idea was, you know, stay away from people. Communism. You know, like stay away from people. There is a, everyone is equal, but there is a sovereign that will chop your head off if you believe you were special.

Me: And then like, why do people still tell it today?

[Pause]

Informant: It’s… cutesy. For kids. ‘Cause the rhyme… the rhyme rhymes. You know? It’s just a cutesy little rhyme. You can imagine a little bunny hopping around and being asked like, “Oh, why don’t you go hang out with this person?” Like, “Ah, ’cause I’m scared. This big bad wolf’s gonna come eat my tail.” Like it comes out really cutesy. And, you know, it’s just a fun thing to tell. Like why do we tell the story of Hansel and Gretel? Because it kind of, harshly, for the house of candy, it’s fun to describe it. So… yep.

Analysis:

This nursery rhyme provides an example of citizens of an occupied nation using humor to make light of their situation under an oppressor. Other children’s rhymes such as “Ring Around the Rosie” and “London Bridge is Falling Down” similarly use tragedies as their inspiration. The using of a “great big dog” to represent the Soviet Union and bunnies to represent Armenia references both the Soviet Union’s great size and its military strength. Children’s folklore also commonly addresses violence and misfortune.