Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Nursery Rhymes I Don't Understand

Yankee Doodle

Picture, if you will, a five-year-old child who knows little or nothing about the American Revolution. Conjuring up this mental image should not prove difficult, given the colonial conflict’s failure to drive the plots of many Scooby Doo or SpongeBob cartoons. In fact, our imaginary child may not even know what the word “revolution” means, and his parents may be determined to keep this information from him as long as possible lest it give birth to plans for armed insurrection in the home.

Go further, and imagine that you are the parent of this child, and that he has just heard for the first time an unbowdlerized version of the American Revolution’s unofficial theme song, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Your child approaches you with a confused countenance and asks you to explain what in the world this apparent bastardization of the Barney theme song is all about. Daddy, what is a yankee doodle? (Sounds to me like some sort of forbidden Chinese wrestling hold). Why did the man call a feather macaroni? And what does it mean to be handy with the girls? Daddy? Daddy?

If you’re like me, these are difficult –– if not impossible –– questions to answer.

It’s Raining, It’s Pouring

This vicious little tune demonstrates how a sociopath would respond when asked to write a children’s nursery rhyme.

As is the case with many of these rhymes, the bare story line itself is simple. As a storm rages outside, an elderly man falls, hits his head, and is injured to the extent that he can’t get out of bed the next morning. The implication is that he was knocked unconscious by the fall, suffering a concussion which possibly resulted in a coma. Remember, it says not that the man was a lazy doofus who didn’t choose to get up the next day, but that he couldn’t get up. We are left to speculate –– will he ever get up again? Is he paralyzed? Or is this the swan song of a corpse?

Now, this simply might be a musical variation of the theme of elderly peril that gave us those daffy commercials with the old lady who complained “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” But of course, that old woman was at least conscious and able to call out for help. In this adaptation, Paw-Paw is out cold.

How strange it is that this scenario –– an accident to a senior citizen causing undetermined but possibly fatal injuries –– ever ended up being distributed to little children in preschool via a nursery rhyme. If there had been, say, a man diving into a shallow pool, hitting his head on a rock and sinking to the bottom, unconcious and slowly drowning, his air slowly seeping away, his lips turning blue, would the average onlooker with a musical bent follow their call to 9-1-1 by rushing to a piano and hunting for a cheery accompaniment? Would they then send the hastily scribbled sheet music for “He’s Diving, He’s Drowning” to Sesame Street for consideration?

A related offshoot of this is the “Jack and Jill” nursery rhyme, which tells the familiar story of Jack falling down and “breaking his crown,” with Jill repeating the same moves seconds later. The same themes are played out in the opening scene of “Chicken Little” and in every Roadrunner cartoon ever made.

I must ask –– what is this morbid, gleeful fascination with serious head injuries?

Rock-a-bye Baby

It’s highly likely that Rock-a-bye Baby is the only nursery rhyme created by, for and about squirrels.

Think about it. The only way this catchy little ditty makes any sort of sense is as a cautionary tale for young bushy-tailed rodents undergoing the challenges of high altitude parenthood.

You know the story. Mr. and Mrs. Nutsy, shut out of the highly competitive inside-hollow-tree housing market and unwilling or unable to move to a new forest, give into temptation and take the quick and easy solution to locate Nutsy Junior’s nursery.

As a temporary measure (so they rationalize) they place the little squirrel’s acorn-filled crib high atop the branches of their favorite old oak, and all is well until that big wind comes along, cracking the rotten wood and blowing the crib –– and Nutsy Junior –– over the edge and into a free fall to the ground far below. Our imaginations complete the screenplay: frantic leaping from branch to branch; the inevitable pounce of a snarling canine; excited, high-pitched chattering; a final view of the bloody, broken crib; slow fade to black.

I’m telling you, the squirrel scenario is the only way this sucker makes sense. So, I must ask –– which ambitious Hollywood script editor first got the crazy idea of substituting a human child in the role of victim? Not that all men and women are model nurturers, but in the history of the world has there been even one recorded instance of a human parent hauling their child’s crib up a tree and then climbing back down to watch what happens? Tarzan and Jane didn’t do it. The Swiss Family Robinson didn’t do it. The Three Stooges –– even Curley –– rejected knucklebrained stunts this perilously wacky.

And why do we continue to sing this musically soothing yet narratively disturbing song to our young babes at bedtime? My guess is we do it because it works –– it gets the little ones tired very efficiently. And we tell ourselves, for the most part correctly, that they can’t understand the words, so what’s the harm?

But what about a home in which there are older children present? How do they feel when each night they witness mommy or daddy lovingly rocking little brother or sister to sleep while giving melodic voice to their parents’ yet unrealized ambition to place the little tyke high atop the front yard pecan tree and wait for a good north wind? Hearing this, are these older children able to sleep at night? Do they harbor fears that their parents might maroon them on the roof in an orange crate during a tornado?

I say if we must continue to sing lullabies about babies placed in harm’s way, let’s invent some new ones and add them to the repertoire for variety’s sake. Let’s hear the following scenes played out to the gentle strains of Bach or Brahms:

––a baby is trussed up with ropes and then hoisted to the top of a tall flagpole during a lightning storm.
––a baby in its bassinet is left up in the crow’s nest of a ship during a typhoon.
––a baby in an infant seat placed temporarily on the car roof is then forgotten just before the car pulls out of a parking lot onto a busy expressway.
––a baby taken for a ride in a wagon by older siblings is left on the train tracks just before the 5:13 express blows into town.
––a young child left unattended in an airplane fiddles with the emergency door and is sucked out into the ether after it opens accidently.

These and other new tunes could be written, recorded and collected on a CD called Lullabies to Lose Sleep Over. At the very least, it would make a great Oprah show.


Stephanie said...

I've always found Rock-a-bye Baby to be very disturbing. And yet I still find myself humming it to my girls. Crazy.

Muley said...

Oh, yeah, it's quite a catchy tune, and I sang it to my girls. But why? Sheer habit and tradition, I guess. There's probably some true story about what the lyrics really mean, but I'm too lazy to look it up.

Inkling said...

I don't like any of those . . . my suspicion is that these kinds of nursery rhymes were really some kind of political joke made up by adults and that the kids caught on because they were happy. I do know that Yankee Doodle is mocking Revolutionary Americans--macaroni means military decoration. I would guess the old man is some king or something that people wanted to oust. But the cradle? The only explanation I can think of for that is a game--the kind babies love where you pretend to drop them a little. It is bizarre.

Inkling said...

I meant to say catchy up there, not happy. It's late.