December 06, 2005

U is for Unknown

This is cheating a little, since I started out with A is for Anonymous, but I'm going to address a different subset of verse here.

is for Unknown.

For Anon., I wrote about the ballads that begin many poetry anthologies, whose authorship is lost somewhere back in time. For Unknown, I want to write about the verses, jingles and rhymes that come from nowhere and somehow lodge in the folds of our brains. These are the onews everyone knows. (Actually, the ones I know are the ones everyone in the US knows - I'm sure that there are different versions in other countries.) Some stay around forever, some sweep through a school or a city and eventually die away. They appeal to different ages, too - most of the ones that stick seem to be sung to or by children, but different types appeal to different ages.

The grandaddy of these jingles is one of the best known:

Ring around a rosy Pocket full of posies, Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

I've variously seen it attributed to ancient Egyptian times and the Black Plague, though I'd have to say the latter seems more likely. The Mother Goose rhymes were first published in the 1700s, but some of them are much older than that.

There was an old woman tossed in a basket. Seventeen times as high as the moon; But where she was going no mortal could tell, For under her arm she carried a broom.

"Old woman, old woman, old woman," said I,
"Whither, oh whither, oh whither so high?"
"To sweep the cobwebs from the sky;
And I'll be with you by-and-by

But not all of these are ancient. I think Miss Mary Mack, a clapping rhyme I and my friends played, is of American origin - I'd guess not earlier than the mid or late 19th century just from the wording, but that's pure speculation.

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, All dressed in black, black, black, With silver buttons, buttons, buttons, All down her back, back, back She asked her mother, mother, mother, For fifty cents, cents, cents, To see the elephant, elephant, elephant. Jump over the fence, fence, fence. He jumped so high, high, high, He reached the sky, sky, sky, And he never came back, back, back, ‘Till the end of July, ‘ly, ‘ly.

Some of the other clapping rhymes were even later - I think the Oreo one came form a commercial. And there were rhymes I learned from other kids in school that must have been made up in the very recent past - they traveled around school a bit, then died away. Here's one:

Coca Cola came to town, Pepsi Cola shot him down Dr. Pepper fixed him up Now they're drinking 7-Up. 7-Up he got the flu, Now they're drinking Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew got shaken up, Now they're drinking Bubble-Up.
I have no idea where that one came from, or why anyone wrote it. (Bubble-Up was a short-lived soda, kind of like 7-Up or Sprite.)

Rhymes like the circle games or the Mother Goose ones are usually sung to toddlers, generally by older people. In contrast, the rhymes for clapping, jump rope or other games or for teasing are sung by older kids. That may make them especially vulnerable to change through the folk process. For example, there's:

[Hisname] and [Hername], sittin' in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G First comes love, then comes marriage, Then comes a baby in a baby carriage.

In my grade school, we'd have sung that last line as "Then comes [Hername] (or [Hisname], if he were the one being teased) in the baby carriage." It doesn't make a lot of sense that way, but it still sufficed if you wanted to embarass someone.

There were also counting-out rhymes, used to pick for example who would be it in a game of tag. We had a lot of those, and again they ranged from ancient:

Eeny, meeny, miney moe, Catch a tiger by the toe, If he hollers, let him go, Eeny, meeny, miney moe.

The nonsense syllables may first have been used to count sheep one of the Celtic languages. We sometimes used "Out goes Y-O-U" for the last line, and we did say "tiger", as opposed to "Indian" (which is used in the Mary Poppins books) or "n----r" which I have also seen in older sources. (I'm not sure if Mary Poppins originally said "Indian" or if my copies have been redacted.) Most of our counting rhymes had less illustrious pedigrees and fewer variants. Here are a couple more:

Doggy, doggy diamond, Step right up. Not because you're dirty, Not because you're clean, Just because you kissed the girl behind magazine And you are it!

Engine engine number nine,
Coming down Chicago line,
If the train jumps off the track,
Do you want your money back?
(person pointed to says "yes" or "no", counter spells the word out)
Y-E-S spells yes and you are it!

My mother and your mother were hanging up clothes,
My mother punched your mother right in the nose
What color blood came out?
(person pointed to picks a color, counter spells it out)
And you will now be IT!

The last line can vary in any of these depending who the person counting wants to pick. If you want to go on longer, you can pick who's NOT "it" and repeat the rhyme until only one person is left. And an obnoxiously precocious kid an make the last rhyme's target a little more uncertain by picking a color like "aquamarine". (Of course, I would never have done that, nuh-uh nope.)

Obviously, none of these are great poetry. But they were part of my life growing up; I think too many adults put away and even forget childish things. I want to remember them, especially when those childish things are links to centuries of children before me.

Posted by dichroic at December 6, 2005 12:39 PM
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