Some time ago I was sitting in a pub garden watching a little boy of about three trying to play Aunt Sally - a game rather like skittles which is popular in our bit of Oxfordshire. He was having difficulty, but eventually succeeded in hurling the heavy wooden baton (which is used instead of a ball) down the alley at the Sally, which is a single white skittle, and knocked her down. In great delight he went running back to his family chanting, ‘Easy peazy lemon squeezy, easy peazy lemon squeezy!’ I was smiling and thinking to myself how much young children love rhyme and rhythm and word-play. Many of them, in junior school, are natural poets; you’d think it would be dead easy to make readers out of them. What happens to the simple joys of having fun with words?
Here’s a skipping or clapping rhyme my children used to chant at school. I'll show the stresses in the first few lines, but it would be a bit much to do the whole thing. Come down heavily on the italicized words and you'll get it:
My mother, your mother, lives across
Eighteen, nineteen, Mulberry Street –
Every night they have a fight and this is what it sounded like:
Girls are sexy, made out of Pepsi
Boys are rotten, made out of cotton
Girls go to college to get more knowledge
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider
Criss, cross, apple sauce,
WE HATE BOYS!
Chanted rapidly aloud, you can feel how infectious it is. Another one, also a clapping game, runs:
I went to the Chinese
To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread,
They wrapped it up in a five pound note
And this is what they said, said, said:
My… name… is…
Girls are sexy
Sitting on the back seat
Had a baby
Named it Daisy
Had a twin
Put it in the bin
Wrapped it in -
Do me a favour and –
I suppose every junior school in the country is home to a similar rhyme: chanted rapidly and punctuated with a flying, staccato pattern of handclaps, it’s extremely satisfying. I've heard teachers in schools get children to clap out the rhythms of poems 'so that they can hear it' , but never anything as complicated as these handclapping games children make up for themselves. No adults are involved. What unsung, anonymous geniuses between 8 and 12 invented these rhymes and sent them spinning around the world? Nobody analyses them, construes them, sets them as text, or makes children learn them. Some of them go back centuries, constantly evolving and updating. They’re for fun. Nothing but fun.
From such ordinary backgrounds sprang the great poet without whom we would have no ballads, no fairy tales, no myths, no legends, no Bible – all of which were made up and told aloud by Anon long before they were written down and published in big thick books. It's unimaginable. We’d have no proverbs, no skipping rhymes, no riddles, no jokes. People are naturals at using colourful speech: you really and truly do not have to learn to read or write in order to express yourself. And this reminds me of a section about ‘Children’s Folklore and Game Rhymes’ in a lovely book called ‘Folklore on The American Land’ by Duncan Emrich (Little, Brown & Company, 1972). Here are some examples. A counting-out rhyme –
Intery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber-lock
Three geese in a flock,
One flew east and one flew west,
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest,
O – U – T spells out!
So that’s where the Jack Nicholson film took its name from! I'd never realised. How about this exuberant skipping rhyme from a school in Washington?
Salome was a dancer
She danced before the king
And every time she danced
She wiggled everything.
‘Stop,’ said the king,
‘You can’t do that in here.’
‘Baloney,’ said Salome,
And kicked the chandelier.
Grandma Moses sick in bed
Called the doctor and the doctor said
‘Grandma Moses, you ain’t sick,
All you need is a licorice stick.’
I gotta pain in my side, Oh Ah!
I gotta pain in my stomach, Oh Ah!
I gotta pain in my head,
Coz the baby said,
Downtown baby on a roller coaster
Sweet, sweet baby on a roller coaster
Shimmy shimmy coco pop
Shimmy shimmy POP!
Shimmy shimmy coco pop
Shimmy shimmy POP!
A clapping rhyme I remember from my own schooldays went:
Have you ever ever ever in your long-legged life
Seen a long-legged sailor with a long-legged wife?
No, I’ve never never never in my long-legged life
Seen a long-legged sailor with a long-legged wife.
The second verse figured a knock-kneed sailor and a knock-kneed wife, and the third a bow-legged sailor with a bow-legged wife, and, as Iona and Peter Opie recorded a child explaining (in ‘The Singing Game’, OUP 1985): ‘Every time you start a new bit you put your hands on your knees and then clap your hands together – that’s for “Have you” and “No I’ve”, because they are slow. Then you go quicker and clap against the other person’s right hand and your own hands again and the other person’s left hand and your own hands again, and when you say “long-legged life” you separate your arms out sideways. And when you come to “knock-kneed” and “bow-legged” you imitate those as well.’ Playing this game was a lot of fun.
Here’s a last one, comically relevant perhaps, given the recent news that the prolific Boris is to become a father again for the 8th (or 9th?) time.
The Johnsons had a baby,
They called him Tiny Tim,
They put him in a bathtub
To see if he could swim.
He drank up all the water,
He ate up all the soap,
He tried to eat the bathtub
But it wouldn’t go down his throat.
Mummy Mummy I feel ill,
Call the doctor down the hill.
In came the doctor, in came the nurse,
In came the lady with the alligator purse,
Measles said the doctor,
Mumps said the nurse,
Toothache said the lady with the alligator purse.
Out went the doctor, out went the nurse,
Out went the lady with the alligator purse.
'In came the lady with the alligator purse': from Janet and Allen Ahlberg's 'The Jolly Christmas Postman' (Heinemann, 1991)