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About A Week: My Knickers Flew Away

Children delight in mocking the adult world in their playground rhymes, as Peter Hinchliffe reveals.

Those memories of Christmas still linger. A brightly lit tree in a corner of the living room.

Innocent, bright-eyed children, unwrapping the gifts that Santa has brought on the festive day

Innocent?

Perhaps not. Judging by their playground chants and rhymes, children are possessed of a rebellious sense of humor. So it has been down the centuries.

Just for starters, here are three skipping rhymes that have echoed round many a playground during recent decades:


Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!
My knickers flew away
They came back yesterday
From a little holiday

***

Down by the river, down by the sea,
Johnny broke a bottle and blamed it on me.
I told ma, ma told pa,
Johnny got a spanking so ha ha ha.

***

My father's a Midnight Mechanic
He works in the middens by night
And when he comes home in the morning
He's covered with Turkish Delight

***

Cash is being assigned from Britain's Heritage lottery fund to investigate the changes in playground songs, many of which are of a subversive nature. While playing skipping and other games children chant rhymes that break taboos by poking fun at the adult world.

The research is being organized by Malcolm Taylor of the English Folkdance and Song Society, which was founded in 1911.

The aim is not only to monitor how the songs and chants of childhood have changed down the ages, but also to encourage creativity. Children apparently still yield to the urge to rhyme while they play, and this is evident in countries around the world.

In Medieval times children danced in a ring while singing:


Ring-a-ring-o-roses
A pocket full o' posies.
Atishoo! Atishoo!
We all fall down!

On that line "we all fall down" children did indeed fall to the ground, to the accompaniment of much giggling and laughter. The rhyme is thought to refer to the Black Death, an infectious disease that swept through Europe, killing hundreds of thousands, in the 14th century. The "ring o roses" was the rash that was the symptom of the disease.

Ring-o-roses has gone through many "re-writes" down the years. A popular German version features a lamb, and a naughty Bosnian version concerns a grandfather's digestive system.

In the 1980s, when the TV soap opera Dallas was popular, English children were skipping merrily to the words:


He's big. He's rich. His wife is a bitch
He drives a big, white carrrr
He lives in a palace in the middle of Dallas
And he calls himself JRRRRRRRR

Two rhymes still in vogue are:


I am a Girl Guide dressed in blue
These are the actions I must do:
Salute to the King and bow to the Queen,
And turn my back on the washing machine.

***

Sausage in the pan, sausage in the pan,
Turn it over, turn it over, sausage in the pan

Baby on the po, baby on the po,
Pick him up, pick him up, baby on the po.

Bailiff at the door, bailiff at the door,
Kick him out! Kick him out! Bailiff at the door.

***
Six decades on from my own childhood I still remember some of the words that we chanted while skipping ropes were twirled in the tiny Yorkshire mining village in which I grew up.

My childhood spanned the Spartan days of World War II. Food was strictly rationed. Only two ounces of sweets (candy) were allowed each week. And toys were not available in the shops.

We had to make our own toys. When we boys played rugby and touch and pass, our "ball" was a man's sock stuffed with newspapers.

The communal skipping rope used by the girls was an old clothesline on which washing had once been hung out to dry. Skipping was of course a girls' pastime, but we boys often joined in.

My neighbor, June Hirst, who grew up in a nearby mining village, recalls that girls skipped to the words:


All in together girls,
Never mind the weather girls,
Salt, pepper, mustard, vinegar!

Two girls seized either end of the rope and twirled it. As many girls as possible "got into" the rope, skipping to allow it to pass beneath their feet.

The words were recited faster and faster, and the skipping rope speeded up to match the pace of the tongues that were reciting them. Inevitably, some girl's feet became entangled in the whizzing rope. She was then "out," and had to take her turn at twirling the rope.

Another girls' skipping chant went:


I had a little puppy
His name was Tiny Tim
I put him in the bathtub
to see if he could swim
He drank all the water
He ate a bar of soap
The next thing you know
he had a bubble in his throat.
In came the doctor, (another girl jumps into the twirling rope)
In came the nurse (and another)
In came the lady with the alligator purse (and another)
Out went the doctor (girl jumps out)
Out went the nurse (another girl jumps out)
Out went the lady with the alligator purse (and another).

***

Sometimes we village lads, tiring of hectic games of touch and pass, would commandeer the girls' skipping rope. Skipping then became a game of competitive endurance -- the victor being he who was the last to stumble over the twirling rope.

We did not chant while skipping, as did the girls. We were too out of breath for that. There were occasions when we chanted rhymes though, and those rhymes were often vulgar -- a vulgarity all the more enjoyable in the knowledge that teachers and parents would heartily disapprove of it.

While a bitter world war was being fought, our 9-year-old response to Nazi Germany was:


In 1944
Old Hitler went to war
He had no gun
So he fired with his bum
In 1944

Children who challenge authority with a subversive, and often vulgar, rhyme grow up to be ever wary of authority.

And the ability to question, and sometimes, mock those who would run our lives for us is the firm foundation upon which democracy is built.

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