Why don’t you include songs like ___________

If something isn’t up now, it might be sooner or later. Maybe I just don’t know it. I am, however, trying to avoid songs that I’m sure were written by adults, for the most part, unless there’re good parodies going around. I’m more interested in the “by kids for kids” stuff, or at least stuff where the origin is totally obscure and there is no “official” version. A good rule of thumb is that if a song doesn’t include anything about bodily functions, sex, or violence, it’s probably by an adult. I’m more interested in the “subversive” stuff.

A few posts seem different than they were last time I was here.
I edit. A lot. Rough drafts here tend to be fairly informal. I go through and edit posts to add new information all the time, or sometimes just to clean up the language or add something that occurred to me later. Such is the benefit of the editable-blog format. So keep checking back!

Who are you, anyway?
This guy. I write childrens/young adult books and work as a Chicago historian for a living, specializing in “weird” stories that I use on the ghost tours I run. I’ve always been fascinated by how widespread playground songs and stories are. When I was a kid, someone would occasionally tell us that the songs and jokes they heard from us weren’t the very latest thing, but were from “back in my day.” We didn’t care. They were new and edgy to us.

MY kids don’t talk like that!
Wanna bet? Kids talk about sex and bodily functions all the time, and most of them swear. This is not a new development – they’ve been doing it for centuries. I realize that some people don’t believe this. I’ve had my books challenged in libraries (though there’s very little swearing in them, honestly). But I”m on record as being a guy who doesn’t have a real problem with swearing – I fail to see what makes “ass” any worse than “butt.” My stepson knows that he can say most of the swear words around his mom and me and not get in trouble. I’ll be much more upset if he starts using “gay” and “retarded” as pejoratives. Those are genuinely offensive. But who does “bullshit” offend? Bulls?

Anyway, I suppose the same people who have a problem with my books will point out this site as evidence that I’m out to “rob children of their innocence” or something like that. But isn’t that why I got into the kidlit business? To rob children of their innocence and convert them to Satanism?

Isn’t it sad that all these are dying because of the media?
Folklorists had to get used to the media decades ago – many of these songs and rhymes are still going strong, and no dirtier than ever. The media only encourages them (though songs tied to specific media, like TV theme songs and commercials, tend to die out eventually, though the parodies often outlast the originals). The biggest threat to these things is that kids have much, much less unsupervised free time than they used to. Kids aren’t allowed to spend hours just running around in the streets anymore. It’s not that the streets are actually any less safe than they ever were, it’s really just that social mores have changed.

Did you that the nursery rhyme ______ is really about _______
There are lots of neat stories about dark sub-meanings of nursery rhymes in circulation. But they’re hardly ever true. The thing about “ring around the rosie” being about the plague is a classic example of this. It’s one of those “fascinating facts” that everyone knows, but which isn’t really a fact. Iona Opie, THE authority on these things, once said that she and her husband had had to hear that explanation so many times that they were reluctant to leave the house anymore.

What’s all this about The Folk Process, brainiac?
The Folk Process is how folk tales, songs, etc. evolve. A guy in Scotland goes around singing a song about Lady Polly being murdered by her boyfriend, Sir William, when he finds out she’s pregnant. Another guy hears it, moves to the mountains fo South Carolina, and keeps singing it, but over time it changes to “Young William” and “Pretty Polly,” because there’re no titles of nobility in the states, and the verses about her being pregnant get dropped, because they’re somehow inappropriate. Then Bob Dylan borrows the melody for “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” a few decades later….

This process is alive and well on playgrounds. Kids have no idea, usually, who wrote the songs they’re singing or the jokes they’re telling, and usually don’t know that they aren’t brand new. They hear them at camp, or from friend at other schools, then sing them themselves. Their friends add a verse….. you get the idea.

That said, though, I make no claims to be an academic, and I have no real interest in running a “scholarly” site. These days I can’t really claim that anything I do won’t end up in a book sooner or later, but if it does, I’ll have to clean up the citations, verify some facts, and all of that jazz. I have a BA in English, but I’m not affiliated with any universities or organizations at the moment, unless you count the Society of Childrens’ Book Writers and Ilustrators. I certainly realize that this site is not exactly up to scholarly standards. For the record most of the historical stuff that either comes from the books in the sidebar or from various folklore journals that you can find via google books without too much trouble. When I have a reason to doubt a story (and plenty of those folklore journals have made some pretty wild claims about the origin of various rhymes), I try to flag it (watch for words like “apparently,” “said to be,” etc). If you doubt something you see here, feel free to correct me or call me on it.

Do You Have Hard Data On These Claims That You Could Cite?
Hard data barely exists in this field – how old or widespread these things go tends to rely on memory or what got written down when the kids were playing with a folklorist overhearing. When asked about the songs they sing by adults, kids will often clean things up or leave the ones that they think will get them in trouble out. And they certainly aren’t filling out paperwork every time they tell a joke.

Would you teach these to your kid?
Sure, some of them. Others I probably wouldn’t tell hims myself, but I wouldn’t be too upset if he heard them from other kids. There are a handful that would get him in trouble – the songs about the mentally handicapped, the racist ones, etc are not “politically incorrect,” they’re just PLAIN incorrect. However, if you hear your kid singing one of them, it doesn’t mean he or she is a racist, a gay basher, etc – it just means they’re repeating a song they heard and don’t fully understand. They’re kids, after all. My only recommendation is to pick your battles – give them a talking to about the really “incorrect” ones, and let them have their fun with the “burning down the school” and bathroom songs. You probably sang the same ones, and you came out all right, didn’t you?

Why do you censor some of the cuss words?
Some older kids end up on this site after reading my books. I sometimes blank out the swear words (ie S–T) to keep their parents from throwing a fit. Trust me, the irony of censoring rhymes sung by kids so kids don’t see them is not lost on me. Censoring them at all (especially when you know perfectly well what the word in question is) is a very silly thing to do, but, for me, it’s just good business. If I kept the sight up to academic standards I could fall back on saying it’s scholarly, but, well, I don’t. I’m not an academic.

Are you doing a book on this?
Well, one of the driving ideas behind the project was that labeling the posts makes it easier to sort and search through these thing than a book could ever be. Not to mention that allowing comments helps trace how old and widespread the stuff really is. That said, though, it seems like everything I do turns into a book sooner or later, and there’s already an ebook version. Hence the warning in the comment form that data collected here may end up in a book at some point – even if it’s not one of mine, some other person might use it as data some day. PLEASE include the city and time period (and anything else you remember) with your posts.

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