Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"And The Little Pig Rocked the Cradle"

(In case you missed yesterday's announcement, what follows is an essay by my wife Eberle Umbach; it's part of the ongoing Women's Work is Women's Art series on Robert Frost's Banjo featuring essays by Eberle Umbach & Audrey Bilger)

What rivals the weirdness of surrealism, is akin to rap music, and can put a baby to sleep?
Nursery rhymes by Mother Goose—“those immortal lyrics,” as Catherine
Sedgewick called them in 1836. Most of us probably remember at least a few scraps of the strange and yet familiar landscape of nursery rhymes and tales-- where animals and objects speak, where a beanstalk carries you above the clouds, and an old woman sweeps cobwebs from the sky with a broom.

The sow came in with the saddle
The little pig rock'd the cradle
The dish ju
mp'd up on the table
To see the pot swallow
the ladle.
The spit that stood behind the door
Threw the pudding-stick on the floor.
Odsplut! said the gridiron,
Can't you agree?
I'm the head constable
Bring them to me.
Mother Goose’s Melodies, 1873

A couple of notes on this: a gridiron, intended for g
rilling meat in the fireplace, consisted of several iron bars riveted into a rectangular frame. Four legs and a handle completed the simplest gridiron design, although features such as a revolving spit and a gutter to catch grease showed up later. Standing on legs tall enough to clear a heap of coals or wood on the hearth, the gridiron was susceptible to flare-ups when fat dropped down into the hot coals. Odsplut is one of numerous hoary oaths hiding the word “God”: Odsplut means God’s blood; ‘Sdeath, God’s death; ‘Strewth, God’s truth; and Zounds or ‘Swounds, God’s wounds.

As a female figure associated with verse-making for hundreds of years, Mother Goose links women with the authorship of a venerable body of literature. Mother Goose represents the literature of the home and nursery as well as the evolution of this literature in oral form during the centuries when most women were excluded from education and could not read or write. Children acted as authors and co-authors in this field as well, creating variations and changes to the constantly evolving literature of nursery and playground games-- where speech rhythms merge with movement and melody in a fusion that finds echoes in magic rituals, ancient Greek theatre, jazz and rap. It all started here: Paddy cake, paddy cake, baker’s man….

For most of the history of verse in Western Civilization, music and poetry have been closely linked. In ancient Greek drama, poetry was inextricably connected not only with music but also with movement on the stage. It is only since the eighteenth century that a separation began, leading to the present-day situation in which poets are one thing and singer-song-writers another. Elizabethan lyrics that we now know as poetry or have heard on the stage as spoken (“Full fathom five my father lies…”) were in fact intended to be sung. The tradition of sung poetry continued with some eighteenth century writers—William Blake for instance wrote melodies for his verse. Stevie Smith in the twentieth century sang her poems to the melodies of popular hymns.

References to Mother Goose in the seventeenth century show that people of that time already knew her as a well-established figure in the tradition of telling stories. Her name appears on collections of fairy tales during this era, in her French incarnation as Mère l’Oye. But with the first known book of nursery rhymes, published in London by Mary Cooper in 1744, Mother Goose came be to be associated primarily with short verse— Mother Goose's Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle also came out around this time. Hundreds of Mother Goose rhymes are still spoken today, some of which can be traced back to the seventh century. Yes, that means they have survived in living spoken form for one thousand four hundred years— a longevity that is comparable to the work of any other poet in the history of the English language.

Lady Bird, Lady Bird,

Fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
Your children will burn.
* * *
Sing, Sing!—What shall I sing?

The Cat's run away with the Pudding-Bag String.

* * *There was an old woman tost up in a blanket,
Seventy times as high as the moon,
What she did there, I cannot tell you,

But in her hand she carried a broom.
Old woman, old woman, old woman, said I,
O whither, O whither, O whither so high?
To sweep the cobwebs from the sky,
And I shall be back again by and by.

* * *

We’re all in the dumps,
For diamonds are trumps;
The kittens are gone to St. Paul's!
The babies get bit,
moon's in a fit,
And the houses are built without walls.

Some of us frisky girls can’t avoid asking the question: what if Mother Goose had been known as the immortal bard Sir Gander? Would scholars write books about the ancient connection between verse, movement, and poetry that the bard preserved? Would there be Sir Gander Societies and coffee mugs?

We can tha
nk our lucky stars that this never happened. Somehow, the greatness of Mother Goose has managed to escape the fate of being called great art—that first step on the slippery slope that lands Van Gogh paintings on tote bags and bad-boy rock stars in the aisles of supermarkets as muzak. What a fate.

Mother Goose, on the other hand, is counter-cultural art that has managed not to be sucked into the void of official culture. A very different kind of authorship than what is associated with “official” literature lies behind the magic of Mother Goose, since many people, rather than a single author, created this body of work—similar to the way that many musicians contribute to the creation of folk-music. Nursery rhymes and children’s games even in antiquity were in all probability composed by those who peopled the nursery—mostly women and children.

Among t
he many authors who composed the work of Mother Goose seems to have been one Elizabeth Foster Goose (1665-1757), an American Mother Goose, who was remembered for the nursery rhymes she told to the children of her extremely numerous family. This particular Mother Goose died in Boston and was buried in the Old Granary Burying Ground, where her grave attracts many visitors.

The line between authors as producers of art and readers as consumers of art can be blurred by Mother Goose as well. The survival of this poetry has not been dictated by the dynamics of mass-marketing or by the politics of “greatness,” but by actual individual humans. When you find yourself humming “London Bridge is Falling Down” or playing Ring Around the Rosie with your children you are not only participating in ancient history you are creating its link with the present. This kind of individual connection with art takes on a particular pungency in the age of mass-marketing, when, as the contemporary folk singer Utah Phillips puts it, “a revolutionary song is any song you sing yourself.”

Ani Difranco, a folk singer who collaborated with Utah Phillips, spoke about the people-based evolution of folk music—a type of evolution that is shared by the Mother Goose tradition: “I use the word ‘folk’ in reference to punk music and rap music. It's an attitude, it's an awareness of one's heritage, and it's a community. It's subcorporate music that gives voice to different communities and their struggle against authority.”

Many Mother Goose lyrics were sung, and various melodies have been published alo
ng with the verses. Lullabies that women composed and sang to help send children to sleep reveal the point of view of Mother Goose authors as actual mothers. Rock a Bye Baby, for instance, allows the frustrated and sleep-deprived mother to indulge in a fantasy of being free from baby while singing soothingly: “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.” The Coventry Carol (Lullay Lullay thou little tiny child) was adapted in the fourteenth or fifteenth century to the melody of a lullaby already popular at that time. Here’s a fourteenth century transcription of the first stanza of the original lullaby:

Lollai, lollai
, litil child, whi wepistou so sore?
Nedis mostou wepe, hit was iyarkid the yore
Euer to lib in sorow, and sich and mourne euere,
As thin eld
ren did er this while hi aliues wore.

(Lullay lullay little child, why do you cry so bitterly?

You have to cry, it was ordained long ago
Ever to live in sorrow and to sigh and mourn always
As your elders did before this when they were alive.)

The lat
er version, known as the Coventry Carol and rewritten for the Coventry Mystery Plays in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, tells the Biblical story of Herod’s slaughter of children—which might seem at first glance an unusual match with a lullaby, until you consider that the earlier version itself is all about the inevitability of suffering. It only takes a moment to remember that fairy tales and nursery rhymes as well as lullabies often contain a hefty portion of the darker sides of life. Hansel and Gretel, Old Mother Hubbard, and Little Red Riding Hood tell us of a world in which children are abandoned by their fathers, women have no food for their young ones, and grandmothers are eaten by wolves.

The histor
y of the Coventry Carol involves an evolution of its melody and words from the time of the Crusades to the version we know now. People setting new words to old melodies has been the basis of the creation of popular or folk music for centuries, right up to the twentieth century music of Woody Guthrie and Malvina Reynolds. The Coventry Carol survived all the disasters of those centuries, including a fire in 1879 that destroyed the only manuscript copy of the words —however, today’s copyright laws would have landed the Coventry Carol swiftly in court rather than in history.

The folk evolution of nursery rhymes and children’s games is a rich and on-going tradition. Mary Cooper, in her 1744 Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, chose to preserve a variant of a familiar rhyme that is interesting to know about:

Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty
Naughty boys,
Bak'd in a Pye.

And the realm of Mother Goose writers today is far fro
m unpeopled—anyone who has passed the age of schoolyard jump rope games can’t be truly privy to that locus of creation, but here are some contemporary transcriptions to ponder. For a gender-troubled society, here’s a rhyme that’s meant to be spoken while crossing and uncrossing your legs. If your legs end up crossed at the end of the rhyme, you're a girl and if they end up open, you're a boy:

Ching Ching China
Went to Carolina,

Tried to make a dollar
Out of 15 cents.
She missed, she missed,

She missed like this.

This rhyme is for choosing who will be “it”, while combining old-time genies with food from the modern multi-cultural kitchen:

Einie beanie, Bob Saleenie
Rubbed a lamp and asked a genie
Einie beanie, tortellini
Genie out of order.

A comment on the sense-deadening dominance of mega-co

Three sailors went to Pepsi Co
To see what they could Pepsi Co
But all that they could Pepsi Co
Was the bottom of the deep blue Pepsi Co

Some historians trace a direct connection between ancient magic rituals and playground traditions, postulating that one way magic rituals went “underground” was to find an incarnation in children’s games. For instance, Celtic rituals involving the random selection of a community scape-goat find continuity in games like Duck Duck Goose or tag—games constructed around choosing someone to be “It.”

Aspects of the revolutionary have been common in the work of the nameless writers collectively known as Mother Goose. Official literature written by adults specifically for children in the seventeenth century presented suffering and death as well-deserved punishments for bad behavior, but the unofficial literature “written” by the underclasses stressed the randomness of suffering and death.

Tom, Tom of Islington,

Married a wife on Sunday,
Bro't her home on Monday,
Hired a house on Tuesday,
Fed her well on Wednesday,
Sick was she on Thursday,
Dead was she on Friday,

Sad was Tom on Saturday,
To bury his wife on Sunday.

* * *

Baby and I

Were baked in a pie,
The gravy was wonderful hot:
We had nothing to pay
To the baker that day,
And so we crept out of the pot.

In a quiet but remarkably persistent way, nursery rhymes undercut the seeming “sen
se” of cultural values with an opposing tradition of “nonsense”—often showing up the hidden brutality that lurks in what is culturally defined as “sensible.” Unlike the literature intended to instill in children a reverence for the family unit, Mother Goose consistently presents the sinister aspect of family values. Family members in the Mother Goose body of literature quite routinely beat and starve each other. A rhyme from Mother Goose’s Melodies, 1873, sums things up like this:

There was a mad man,
And he had a mad wife,
And they lived all in a mad lane!
They had three children all at a birth,
And they too were mad every one.

The father was mad,
The mother was mad,
The children all mad beside;
And upon a mad horse they all of them got,
And madly away did ride.

Given the special role of this literature in the history of women’s writing, it is not surprising that many of women authors mentioned Mother Goose in their own work— Louisa May Alcott, Fanny Burney, Sarah Fielding, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example. Louisa May Alcott highlights the subversive aspect of Mother Goose in this passage about schoolroom discipline:

Christie taught her flock an appropriate hymn, and was flattering herself that their youthful minds were receiving a devotional bent, when they volunteered a song, and incited thereun
to by the irreverent Wash, burst forth with a gem from Mother Goose, closing with a smart skirmish of arms and legs that set all law and order at defiance.
Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience (1873)

Eliza Townsend (1788-1854) makes a special plea for keeping a love for Mother Goose alive beyond the nursery:
Retain some faith in other things
Than can be put to use;
Learn, when you must, arithmetic,
But still love mother Goose.

Text is copyright Eberle Umbach 2007-2008


  1. I've always been fascinated with the background of nursery rhymes. Wasn't much of it written by the public, expressing their discontent for the ruling powers in sort of a secret code? One that comes to mind is "Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row."

  2. Hi Willow:

    Good question-- one I think I'll mostly defer to Eberle who knows more about the subject than I do-- but I believe ti's true that some nursery rhymes are thought to have originated as responses to current events-- e.g., I believe it's thought "London Bridge is falling down" referred to an actual event, & I seem to recall that "3 Blind Mice" may refer to Henry VIII's execution of bishops who didn't support his divorce.

  3. I've heard about political interpretations of Mother Goose, too, & that's a fascinating dimension of their history. Like any great poetry, I think Mother Goose rhymes invite a variety of intepretations. I love the "Mary, Mary, quite contrary rhyme," & wrote a musical setting for a group of women singers.

    Thanks for reading the essay; I really appreciate your comment!

  4. oh you may enjoy the last photo in this theme thursday post - my little friend ms t is asleep holding a book you might recognize....

  5. Hi John and Eberle,

    I really enjoyed this essay - and learned so much I did not know.
    I guess the dark side of Mother Goose appealed to me because I still enjoy a good dark twist to anything - book, film, song. One of my favourite songs is Johnny Cash's "Delia".
    As a little girl, I found "Who Killed Cock-robin quite distressing - especially with the illustration of the poor bird with an arrow in its chest.
    I've played "Duck,Duck, Goose many times with kindergarten children, but had no idea of its significance.

    This was excellent!


  6. mouse: very cool photos on that book theme post-- & Maurice Sendak as topper!

    Poetikat: "Delia" is a dark song, but J Cash did dark very well-- nothing cheap about the way he addressed the darker side as a singer.

    Thanks from both of us to everyone for your interest & generous comments


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