Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Folksongs of the American child

For some reason my inner DJ has been playing a greatest hits of songs I learned from other kids in childhood, some of which came with clapping games and some of which were more stand-alone. The playlist has been going something like this:

  • Miss Mary Mack
  • Hagalina Magalina Hootensteiner Walkendeiner Hogan Logan Bogan (Was Her Name)
  • Great Green Gobs (of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts)
  • Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat
  • There Were Three Jolly Fishermen
  • Eeny Meeny Miney Mo
  • When Johnny Boy was One
  • The Farmer in the Dell (aka The Cheese Stands Alone)
  • The Doughnut Shop (to the tune of Turkey in the Straw)

I was amazed in high school to learn (quite by accident, during a reminiscence exercise in English class) that a friend from Opelousas, Louisiana, thousands of miles from Maine, also knew "Hagalina Magalina." I think these are the folksongs of the playground - the ones that are passed from kid to kid like big secrets, partly because we had this vague sense that the grownups wouldn't approve. I might never have learned "Great Green Gobs" if my brother weren't a Cub Scout (and totally in love with the phrase "one full ton of all-purpose porpoise pus").

And it strikes me how many of them get their lasting power from the way they play with language. "Hagalina Magalina" is obvious, but the alliteration of "Great Green Gobs" is another, and "Johnny Boy" has a refrain that uses the word "Pinocchio" as a repeated nonsense word, which makes no sense, but it sure is fun to say. "Miss Lucy" is all about seeming to say naughty words and sheering off from them (through double meanings) at the last moment: "Miss Lucy went to heaven and the tugboat went to... HELL-o Operator...." The song"Three Jolly Fishermen" is the same, except it's more explicit about its avoidance ("They all went down to Amster-hmm;" "You mustn't say that naughty word;" "I'm going to say it anyway;" "They all went down to Amster-DAMN").

What have I left off the list? Surely there are more.

ETA: Of course there are more. Now that I've started thinking about this I can't stop.

  • The Ants Go Marching One by One
  • The Littlest Worm I Ever Saw
  • John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt
  • The Grand old Duke of York
  • Do Your Ears Hang Low (bonus! it has extra verses I didn't know about. "Can you semaphore your neighbor with a minimum of labor?" Hee hee.)

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt clearly follows the "fun to say" rule, but the others don't really. I do think that a few of the more Edwardian ones (The Farmer in the Dell; The Grand Old Duke of York) were more likely taught to me by my awesome first grade teacher, at recess time, along with the games that went with them. I have a visual memory of her standing in the middle of the circle, demonstrating "The cheese stands alone."


Ronald van Loon said...

And are these all mentally accompanied by the sound of a biological clock ticking? (Just kidding, just alluding to an earlier blog post here. Honestly. ;-)

Being of Dutch origin, we do have similar songs, I'd think. Don't know Miss Lucy, but we have a song called 'Constantinopel' which works similarly. Strange though that 'hell' would qualify as a naughty word.

Tommy said...

What I always found interesting about this stuff is that it is a standard folk tradition in most ways and carried on over many decades, except it is not passed on parent to child. I mean a parent and a child would carry on the same tradition without ever discussing it. It's child to child.