Thursday, December 11, 2008

pocket full of rye

Have you ever thought about how depressing most nursery rhymes are? Even if it turns out that Ring Around the Rosie is actually not about the Black Death, most of the seemingly innocuous poems are just full of, well, general unpleasantness.

There's that child-abusing old woman who lived in a shoe, Georgie-Porgie and his unwelcome advances, the tragic demise of Humpty Dumpty, the structurally unsound London Bridge, the baby who found itself precariously (and inexplicably) up in the treetop and that unfortunate incident involving three wise men of Gotham and a bowl. And let's not even get into why the little piggy was crying wee, wee, wee all the way home.

But I think the worst of all is probably this cheery little ditty, which I remember as being illustrated (though this can't be right) with a picture of a boy (presumably James) in a sailor suit:

There was an old woman had three sons,
Jerry and James and John,
Jerry was hanged, James was drowned,
John was lost and never found;
And that was the end of her three sons,
Jerry and James and John.

What's your favorite/least favorite nursery rhyme?


thirtysomething said...

Geez. I have never heard that particular one before. Yikes.

I don't especially like nursery rhymes anyway, but I despise Jack and Jill the most. Always have.

Wonder why some nursery rhymes haven't been 'softened' the way some fairy tales have been (from the German versions anyway).

Mrs. Spit said...

I think we forget, children have a positive delight in the blood thirsty, and an accute, if not nuanced version of justice. It seems a reasonable punishment that Hansel and Gretl should get theirs back when they stuff the witch into the church.

I think my least favourite is Rock a bye baby. Cradles falling? Exactly what you want to get your wee one to sleep.

Kris/Iselyahna said...

It's not so much a nursery rhyme but I hate the song "You are my sunshine". It makes me cry and panic, for some reason. The last line kills me.

Cara said...

Ah- what memories.

Do you know the ladybug one? It acutally exists in board book form.

"Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly Away Home.
Your house is on fire and your children all gone.

All except one, and that's little Ann.
For she crept under the frying pan"

Seriously, check out this website for: "crafts, coloring pages, and finger puppets for this rhyme"

(OK - the visual from the webpage is just making me laugh out MUST look!)

Bon said...

laughing about "ladybug, ladybug" which i have to admit did give me pause a few months ago when i came across it with Oscar. "where did the children go?" he asked. i said, "away."

i've always been partial to the three little kittens, which is relatively bloodless if likely to instill eating disorders in kittens...and since Posey was born "Ring around a Rosie" gets recited more in our house, but only the first two lines.

gretchen said...

It wasn't until I was an adult when I understood what "this little piggy goes to market..." really means.

As a child, I always pictured a pig going to the grocery store, pushing a cart. Then, one day as I recited it to my toddler daughter, I realized it meant TO MARKET, as in to be sold for slaughter.

caitsmom said...

Tom, Tom, the piper's son
Stole a pig and away he run
The pig was eat
And Tom was beat
And Tom went crying down the street

flutter said...

ring around the rosie freaks me right the hell out

Anonymous said...

I was shocked when I heard "Alouette" traslated for the first time;
Alouette, gentille Alouette
(Skylark, nice skylark)
Alouette, je te plumerai
(Skylark, I shall pluck you)
And then the song names different parts of the skylark to be plucked.


the dragonfly said...

Wow, that three sons one is quite creepy.

And yeah, it's always amazed me how horrible nursery rhymes are. I've always loved fairy tales...and those actually aren't much better!

Patti said...

I took a children's lit course many years ago (beofre children of my own) and the prof said the reason that nursery rhymes and fairy tales can be so gruesome is to teach children from the safety of their parents' arms that life isn't always wonderful (a la Dis.ney) and sometimes bad things happen that we have to overcome.

One of my favourite fairy tales was the original version of The Little Mermaid - even with the original ending. When I saw the Disn.ey version I was furious that they changed the ending. I wish I could find the original 70s (60s?) cartoon of The Little Mermaid and show it to my kids.

Tash said...

Why do so many involve concussions? Jack and Jill; Rock a bye, baby; and let's not forget "It's raining it's pouring" where the old man can't wake up after bumping his head.

Maybe head injuries were a bit more mysterious back then?

Not a nursery rhyme, but I was so THRILLED recently when Bella took a shine to Tomi Ungerer's "Esmerelda's Ogre" which is simultaneously, a macabre fairy tale in the Grimm tradition; and a foodie book.

Magpie said...

The cranky feminist in me is always pissed off by this one:

Peter Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn't keep her!
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well!

Tash said...

Correction: Magpie just pointed out to me that the correct title is "Zeralda's Ogre," not Esmerelda. Sorry to have Disneyfied poor Tomi.

diana said...

Getting ready, Niobe?

niobe said...

Diana: You know, you may be right.

But also, I've always had a thing for nursery rhymes.

One of my absolute favorites (and Gray's as well) is Jack O'Nory, which is kinda post-modernist in that it tells a story, yet simulaneously refuses to tell a story -- or maybe tells an anti-story.

In case you don't remember it quite as vividly as I do, it goes like this:

I'll tell you a story about Jack O'Nory
And now my story is begun.
I'll tell you another about his brother
And now my story is done.

Christine said...

i get pretty upset when babies fall out of trees

(rock a bye baby)

Artblog said...

Never EVER figured this French nursery rhyme out and it features in almost all of Lalas nursery rhymes CD's. It's quite a pretty tune by all accounts but who the hell would write such a thing and why!

French version:
J’ai du bon tabac dans ma tabatière, J’ai du bon tabac, tu n’en auras pas.

J’en ai du fin et du bien râpé,
Mais ce n’est pas pour ton fichu nez.

I have good tobacco in my snuffbox, I have good tobacco, you won't have any.

I have some fine and some well grated, but it is not for your rotten nose.


The rest is even worse!

niobe said...

Artblog: Hilarious.

And I seem to remember a French children's song about a woman who lost her cat and her next door neighbor said he'd give if back but only if she offered him a reward.

And she said that she'd give him a kiss. And he said, too bad, 'cause I'm trading your cat for a rabbit.

Or something like that.

Clementine said...

I especially dislike Three Blind Mice.

Furrow said...

Ditto Cara and Magpie. And since my examples have already been noted, I have to go farther afield and mention the Ten Little Monkeys song (origin?), in which it the doctor has to tell Mama ten damn times not to let the monkeys jump on the bed. I don't like stupid mama stories.

And, adding to what Mrs. Spit said, there are new (or adjusted?) rhymes in which it appears that something horrible is happening to the children or animals, but all is well in the end. I wonder if that is a good thing.

Pbugs Mommy said...

Little Miss Muffett. I hate spiders. I would have been scared shitless as well.

Grad3 said...

I have always hated ring around the rosie for that very reason---

Aurelia said...


I think that is a traditional Quebecois one that has travelled back to France. Many of them seem to feature tobacco. Weird.

For almost 7 months now, I have been singing the Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie one over and over and over and over. Except I turn the next line into, Kissed the momma, and made her (insert silly word here)

And of course, I add lots and lots of kisses.

Anonymous said...

all very good thoughts. I am convinced that Rock a bye baby in the tree top is about a mother giving birth

when the wind blows (contractions)... the cradle will rock- (your insides hurt like hell.)
When the bough breaks -(placenta) the cradle will fall and down will come baby, cradle and all..(birth/afterbirth)

I am fascinated by fairy tales.

ms. G said...

Oh goodness, I have never heard that little ditty before, Niobe. Yes, I have often thought about how weird and dark many so called childrens rhymes are.

However, I will say after M died, a line that rang in my head a lot was "and all the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty back together again" because that was how I felt.

ms. G said...

Ooops, forgot to mention my least favorite, Peter, peter pumpkin eater. Controlling bastard.

Angela said...

I've never heard that one about the three boys....that's horrendous!

niobe said...

Anonymous: re Rockabye Baby -- that's an absolutely fascinating interpretation. I actually kind of love it.

And Furrow: Changing the horrible parts strikes me as a generally bad idea. After all (says Niobe the cynical) we don't want children to get too used to the idea of happy endings.

niobe said...

Pbugs Mommy: And, in my view, by far the most unsettling thing about spiders is that they not only have eight legs, they also have EIGHT EYES!!!! (though, to be fair, some species have only six)

niobe said...

Cara: That illustration is, to put it mildly, is plain old bizarre. Not to mention --why did two of the ladybug children seem to have survived. And where the heck is the frying pan???

diana said...

Fait dodo,
'Colas, mon p'tit frere,
Fait dodo,
T'aurras du lolot.
Maman est en haut,
Qui fait du gateau,
Papa est en bas,
Qui fait du chocolat,
Fait dodo, 'Colas,
Mon p'tit frere,
Fait dodo,
T'aurras du lolot.

I find it reassuring, very soothing, in a place where time has stoped. It feels like Gray would sing it to the Baby Boy...

painted maypole said...

most fairy tales are also pretty grim(m)

Karin said...

My ears pricked a few years ago when I heard this song on my son's CD:

5 little ducks went out one day.
Over the hill and far away.
Mother duck said, Quack Quack Quack Quack.
But only 4 little ducks came back.

Each verse counting down to:
But none of her little ducks came back.

Around verse 3, my husband said, this doesn't look good........

Of course the final verse goes:
Old mother duck went out one day.
Over the hill and far away.
Mother duck said quack quack quack quack.
And all of her little ducks came back.

A fairy tale ending I guess....

niobe said...

Karin: Would that all our endings were that happy....

Mad said...

It's great to check out old chestnut Mother Goose collections from the library and then read them to your 3-yr-old. Nothing keeps a tired, reading mother more alert.

To whit:
Three children sliding on the ice
All on a summer's day
As it fell out, they all fell in,
The rest they ran away.

Now had these children been at home
Or sliding on dry ground,
Ten thousand pounds to one penny,
They had not all been drowned.

You parents all that children have,
And you that have got none,
If you would have them safe abroad,
Pray keep them safe at home.

There's nothing like heeding the didactic advice of someone who commits such serious errors in logic.

Since you asked, my favourite nursery rhyme is

Bluebells, cockleshells, ivy, ivy over.
Mother's in the kitchen doing a bit of stitching.
Baby's in the cradle playing with a rattle.
A rickety stick, a walking stick
One, two, three.

There are MANY variations on this one but I like the prosody of that combination.

K @ ourboxofrain said...

My favorite of Harry's lullaby CDs (this one) has Rock A Bye baby on it. I always found that song disturbing, but this version changes the ending -- "When the bough breaks, my baby won't fall, 'cause I'll catch you baby, cradle and all." Still don't get why there's a baby in tree, but at least the ending is less horrific.

Anonymous said...

To me, Rock-a-bye baby is exactly like zeus in a Greek Myth.

Cronus and Rhea had 6 childern one after another. Each time one was born, Cronus would take them and swallowed them whole. When the last child was born, Rhea didn't want the same fait to fall to it so she hid the baby on earth and tricked Cronus and gave hime a rock wrapped in blanket. After he swollowed the rock he realized that it was not his child and said he would search every inch of the earth till he found the child. Rhea put the baby who she named Zeus in a cradle and hung it from the tree so he was not touching the earth. Once Zeus got big enough to defeat his father, the limb that was holding him broke and Zeus went and defeated his father and saved his brothers and sisters from his stomach.

Anonymous said...

That was really nice jokes