I loved playground songs and stories as a kid – little song parodies, dirty jokes, rhymes that give you an excuse to swear… what I didn’t realize at the time was that I wasn’t just singing songs my friends had invented. We might have made our own variations now and then, but it turned out that these same songs were had been going around for decades. As an adult, when I started visiting schools as a “guest author” and teaching writing classes, I heard kids telling the same jokes and singing the same songs, with very little in the way of variations.
Folklorists and ethnomusicologists talk a lot about The Folk Process, the way a song or story evolves over time. It’s how the song “Lord Randall” become “Henry Me Son” and “Young Hunting,” then “Billy Boy” in America (where old songs about Lord So and So became about Love So and So, songs about Lady Polly became songs about Pretty Polly, etc, since we didn’t have lords or ladies in the mountains). People change old songs they learn from oral tradition to fit their own times. THis process is alive and well on playgrounds. Indeed, some of the rhymes kids shout may be about peeing on electric fences, but they can be connected back to a process that started centuries ago.
Song parodies travel fast among kids – and did so even before the internet and TV sped things up. For instance, in Australia in the 1950s, kids were singing parodies of The Ballad of Davy Crocket well before that song was even released in Australia. And they were often the same parodies that kids in American and the U.K. were reported to be singing. These kids weren’t ALL getting phone calls from across the ocean to teach them the songs.
Nursery rhymes are really adult rhymes. Not to say that they all have secret meanings (the stories you hear about the “origins” or nursery rhymes are usually nonsense), but nursery rhymes are the rhymes that adults teach kids. Any naughtiness or violence tends to be glossed over. Kids are NOT that sensitive. The rhymes they sing are rude, crude, occasionally racist, and often just plain cruel. Sex is not a tabboo topic (though many rhymes and songs exhibit very little understanding of the birds and the bees; I remember one about rubbing one’s girlfriend’s balls).
The actual origin of these things tends to be shrouded in mystery. That’s being fairly dramatic, but the point stands – these songs seem to come out of nowhere, but endure for decades. Sometimes (and I hope this blog can help with this), the songs DO come from a book or comic (most often Mad Magazine). With others, whether it’s really a playground song or a song taught by adults that BECAME a playground song is hard to figure out. It’s a fine line sometimes, but there’s an easy rule you can go by: if it’s not gross, violent, or somehow obscene, it’s probably written by an adult.