September 09, 2012

Morbid Rhymes for Children

Here's an interesting fact I learned from David Hackett Fischer's book Albion's Seed. In the Colonial era, Puritan parents would take their young children to view recently dug graves. They wanted them to be aware of the possibility of a sudden death, and to instill a fear of eternal damnation into them. I think a parent would be reported for child abuse if they did that today!

According to this site, children were also taken to public hangings, and Puritan ministers routinely told them that at the Last Judgment even their parents would testify to God against them. Nice.

I mention these things just to note that in New England childhood wasn't (and still isn't) all innocence and fun, and we shouldn't be surprised to see echoes of these practices show up in children's culture, like nursery rhymes and counting games.

I think everyone is familiar with the "Eeney meeney miney moe..." counting game that kids play. Here is a slightly more morbid version:

Eggs, cheese, butter, bread, 
Stick, stock, stone, dead, 
Hang him up, lay him down, 
On his father's living ground.

Here's another one:

One zaw, two zaw, zig, zaw, san, 
Bobtail, vinegar, ticklum tan, 
Harum, scarum, virgum, marum, 
Stringlum, stranglum, back and John. 

Playing jump rope also sometimes involves a counting rhyme, and here's a grim one:

Mother, mother, I am sick, 
Send for the doctor, quick, quick, quick. 
How many days shall I live?
(Note: At this point the child starts jumping.)

And this morbid jump rope rhym has been stuck in my head all week:

Apples, peaches, pumpkin pie,
How many years before I die?

Three of these these rhymes were recorded in New England in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project for the Works Progress Administration, which was centuries after the Puritan domination of this area. The other is from the 1800s. Maybe these rhymes weren't influenced by the Puritans at all, but I'm sure there is a rich history behind them. If any readers actually played these games please let me know your thoughts!

I also find it interesting that during the Depression, the government paid folklorists to go out and collect things like children's rhymes. Sadly, nothing quite that creative has happened during our current economic downturn. Who knows what weird bits of our current culture will be lost to future generations?

I found these rhymes in B. A. Botkin's A Treasury of New England Foklore


Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

I remember the "Call for the Doctor Quick, quick, quick" jumping rhyme. At that point the kids turning the rope would turn as fast as they could so you would trip- and die faster! I also remember our teacher telling us that the rhyme "Ring around the rosy" was about the Middle Ages and Bubonic plague. The rosy cheeks in the rhyme were the fever, and "pockets full of posies" were to ward off sickness, and "all fall down" were people dropping like flies from the plague. Yuck.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Heather!

Thanks for the comment. I've also heard that about "Ring Around the Rosy." Oh, the grim truth behind beloved childhood activities...

Anonymous said...

This reminded me of an old song about the death of Giles Cory that I read about in one of Robert E. Cahill's books on New England. According to him, children used to sing in back it the 18th century. I used a few lines in an essay, so I'll paste them here:

"'Giles Corey,' said the Magistrate,
'What art thou here to plead,
To these that now accuse thy soul
of crimes and horrid deed?'
Giles Corey, he said not a word,
No single word spoke he.
'Giles Corey', said the Magistrate,
We'll press it out of thee.'"


Peter Muise said...

Yes, I've seen that ballad too. Very gruesome! I wonder what the tune was like? I think it is from the 19th century.