I have to focus on grown-up songs because traditional kids' songs are weird, confusing, or scary. Take "Pony Boy," for example. I first learned to sing "Pony Boy" when my sister was born; I'm ten years older than her, so I was old enough to do all that baby stuff for her. Here's how "Pony Boy" goes:
Pony Boy, Pony Boy, won't you be my pony boy.
Marry me, carry me, ride away with me.
Don't say no, here we go, giddy-up and go
Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up, WHOA!
(As you sing it, you bounce the baby on your knee like he/she is riding a horse, and when you say "Whoa!" you lift the baby way up in the air).
We used to sing that to my sister, but it was weird. I couldn't help wonder, as I sang it: Who is talking? Is she the Pony Boy and I'm singing to her? Or am I the Pony Boy and she's supposed to be singing to me, which makes more sense? And then I'd think Or am I overthinking this?
Now, I sing that song to Mr F, but it's even weirder. Is he the Pony Boy? And who's he singing to, if he is? It's so confusing that we mostly dispense with the rest of the song and focus on the "WHOA!" because he likes that the best anyway.
As a song, "Pony Boy" is preferable to the scarier end of the childrens' song ouevre.
Everyone knows about the scariness of kids' songs like "Ring Around The Rosie" and how that's actually a song that became popular as a way to ward off the Black Plague. Or "London Bridge," -- not Fergie's version -- where kids sing about London Bridge falling down and a prisoner getting caught and sent to prison not because he's guilty but because he can't pay the bribe to set him free. Those are obvious ones. There are less-0bviously-scary kids' songs to worry about, songs that range from the somewhat disturbing to the downright frightening.
On the somewhat disturbing end: "I've Been Working On The Railroad" and "The Wheels On The Bus." What are these songs supposed to be teaching kids? Cheat on your husband while he works? Don't trust mass transportation? I don't like these songs.
In Railroad, I've been workin' on the railroad, all the livelong day, just waiting for Dinah to blow her horn... but someone's in the kitchen with Dinah, just a strummin' on the old banjo. There's a euphemism if ever I heard one.
Meanwhile, the wheels on the bus go round and round -- until the engine on the bus blows and everyone has to get off, probably ending up late for work and getting laid off, having to go home and tell the kids that it's macaroni for dinner that night again.
Another disturbing one? Three Little Fishies. Seems innocent enough:
Three little fishies in a little bitty pool.
Three little fishies and a mama fishy too.
Swim, said the Mama Fishy, swim if you can,
And they swam and they swam right over the dam.
But that's only if you sing the first verse. There's three more:
"Stop" said the mama fishie, "or you will get lost"
The three little fishies didn't wanna be bossed
The three little fishies went off on a spree
And they swam and they swam right out to the sea
"Whee!" yelled the little fishies, "Here's a lot of fun
We'll swim in the sea till the day is done"
They swam and they swam, and it was a lark
Till all of a sudden they saw a shark!
"Help!" cried the little fishies, "Gee! look at all the whales!"
And quick as they could, they turned on their tails
And back to the pool in the meadow they swam
And they swam and they swam back over the dam
. . .
There are those who might say that the message of that story is that if you don't listen to your parents, you'll get into trouble. Those people do not have children. Children never get the right message. A kid, even a fish-kid, who refused to listen to Mama and swam over the dam and sees a shark and a whale and gets back home is not going to say to him- or herself "Gosh, I'd better listen to Mama next time." No, what the fish will say is "See, Mama? You said I'd get in trouble but the sharks didn't eat me so obviously I know what I'm doing." Then he or she will get drunk on Friday night and you've lost control. Trust me on this. I have extensive experience being a kid and being around them. They will get it wrong.
Kids' songs get even scarier and more confusing than that. How about "Where Is Thumbkin?" You know this one: Hold your hands behind your back, and sing:
Where is Thumbkin, Where is Thumbkin
Here I am, here I am
How are you today, sir?
Very fine I thank you.
Run away, run away.
While you hold up first one thumb, then the other, then pretend they're talking to each other. One thumb asks "how are you," the other responds, and so on. What could be wrong with that, you ask? I'll tell you: why are they running away? If Thumbkin, and Tall Man and Pointer and Ring Man are all very fine I thank you, why do they run? They're up to something.
Those songs are all somewhat obscurely weird and frightening. Other songs just come out and tell you people are going to die or that life isn't worth even going through the motions.
Teaching kids the futility of life at a young age is important, apparently. Otherwise, we'd have no use for "Hole In the Bucket," where a man sings about the hole in the bucket that he can't patch because to patch it he needs to cut something with an axe and the axe needs to be sharpened and the stone is dry and he can't wet the stone because... there's a hole in the bucket. The lesson from that song? Don't even bother getting out of bed, kids.
Don't bother because life is not just futile, it's fatal. We know that because "There Was An Old Woman," a song that is marked by this closing line of virtually every stanza: I guess she'll die.
Ha-ha! Sing that one, grandma! Also, it teaches kids to have an eating disorder. The Old Woman's answer to every problem is to eat something.
Death is not just probable, but present, by the time we go from the Old Woman to "This Old Man,"in which an old man stalks a kid, probably touches him in a bad way (he played knick on the kid's knee and 'hive' ), then dies (he plays knick-knack in Heaven), then comes back to life as a ghost or something and plays knick-knack some more. Lesson: Kids, you will never get away from that creepy guy that's bothering you on the way home from school.
All of those pale in comparison to The Best Scary Kids' Song, which is "Big Rock Candy Mountain." I love this song; I loved it as a kid, when I had a 45 record and a little record player and would play it over and over; I loved it as an adult, when I'd sing it to kids. This is the version of the song that I always knew:
On a summer day
In the month of May
A burly bum came hiking
Down a shady lane
Through the sugar cane
He was looking for his liking
As he roamed along
He sang a song
Of the land of milk and honey
Where a bum can stay
For many a day
And he won't need any money
Oh the buzzin' of the bees
In the cigarette trees
Near the soda water fountain
At the lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
On the big rock candy mountain
There's a lake of gin
We can both jump in
And the handouts grow on bushes
In the new-mown hay
We can sleep all day
And the bars all have free lunches
Where the mail train stops
And there ain't no cops
And the folks are tender-hearted
Where you never change your socks
And you never throw rocks
And your hair is never parted
Oh, a farmer and his son,
They were on the run
To the hay field they were bounding
Said the bum to the son,
"Why don't you come
To that big rock candy mountain?"
So the very next day
They hiked away,
The mileposts they were counting
But they never arrived
At the lemonade tide
On the big rock candy mountain
That version is bad enough; I don't know how it got to be considered a kids' song. Cigarettes? Gin? Burly bums? It's a land of Teamsters setting up some sort of communist society. Plus, I think the bum abducts the farmers' son at the end of that.
But that's not the real version of the song. The real version of the song is even scarier. The real version of the song came out in 1928, and was sung by Harry McClintock:
That version makes it clear just what's going on: people during the Great Depression, criminals, especially, are dreaming of a land where they can get free smokes and lemonade... and avoid the cops and if they get bit by dogs, the dogs won't hurt because of their rubber teeth.
What makes that song so scary is first that it's so rooted in real life; in its yearning for jails that you can leave, and lakes of stew, and porters having to tip their hats and the lack of shovels and picks, you can hear the longing of the singer for a place where life is a little easier and where he'll be treated like a human being again, and have some food and drink.
But, second, it's also a song that imagines that even in a magical land like The Big Rock Candy Mountain, even in a place where there's lemonade springs and the bluebird sings, life is still nasty, brutish and short -- because on The Big Rock Candy Mountain, they don't just paddle around the lake of stew in a big canoe. They also have lynch mobs: they hung the jerk that invented work.
That's what makes "Big Rock Candy Mountain" The Best Kids' Song, though. Being a kid, as I recall and as I imagine now looking at my own kids, is exactly like that song: you're in a world where life is magical, wonderful, and terrible. As a kid, food appears magically for you; you don't know how hard your parents had to work to make sure that you had Cookie Crisp on the table in the morning, and milk is always just in the refrigerator. Everything in the world is new and exciting; I took our Babies! to the hardware store -- the hardware store-- and they stared around and smiled and laughed like it was Disneyland.
At the same time, life is hard. Your brother keeps stealing your little plastic pig. Strangers come up to you and loom over you and touch you. Parents go away for the day even though you don't want them to. You bump your head and fall on your knee and get bit by the dog and touch the hot stove.
"Big Rock Candy Mountain" encapsulates that: there's a land that's fair and bright... but there's still jails. It doesn't sugarcoat that there are bad parts to life, but it manages to somehow be hopeful and a little happy at the same time. The sun shines every day and there ain't no snow.
It teaches you, too, to appreciate the little things in life. You never change your socks. The hay is soft. You may not have a bed or much in the way of clothing, but if you look at it the right way, those are good things.
Most of what we tell kids as they're growing up makes no sense, or will be misinterpreted by them in some way. "Big Rock Candy Mountain," The Best Scary Kids' Song doesn't mess up its message with sharks or prisoners or Thumbkins-that-have-social-phobia; it just quietly communicates that kids should dream of a better life, but at the same time, understand this life and make sure they appreciate it.
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