Thursday, September 30, 2010

Eff'd up nursery rhymes from around the world #1: Vietnam

Well, the stupid internet ruined my introduction to this post by providing more sources debunking than supporting my favorite theories about the creepy origins of the nursery rhymes most English speakers grow up with.  For instance, it turns out that "Ring Around the Rosie" is most likely not a coded reference to the horrors of the Black Plague but simply the meaningless ditty it appears to be.

Still, you have to admit that a lot of the things we chant at our children are tinged with violence, or are at the very least completely absurd.  Sometimes you can kind of find a lesson in these whimsical jingles, but other times it's best not to think about them too much.  Jack and Jill is basic tragedy in two stanzas for the under-five set,  Rock-a-bye Baby prepares children for the precarious nature of existence and the inevitability of death.  And  Goosey, Goosey, Gander?  Who the fuck knows?

But the English language does not hold a copyright on disturbing/perplexing nursery rhymes.  Here are a couple from the Vietnamese tradition, as performed by my wife and enjoyed by Butterbean and Cobra, or as they are known in Vietnamese, Bơ đậu and Rắn hổ mang.



Clap Your Hands if You Know What's Good for You



Translation:
Clap your hands
Grandma gives you cookie
If you don't clap your hands
Grandma hits you on the head till it hurts

This is pretty self-explanatory.  It's meant to be sung by a grandma.  In the complicated Vietnamese pronoun system, a woman who is roughly the right age to be your grandmother would call herself "grandma" when talking to you, and you would call her the same thing.  The song just doesn't work as well if you substitute the pronoun for someone roughly the age of your mom or dad; so Grandma is always the vessel of both hope and fear.  Anyway, the kids chose not to clap when I turned the camera on.  They will have to answer to Grandma next time she's in town.



I Don't Even Know What to Call this One


    

Translation:
(The first line, which sounds like "Chee-chee, chang-chang" is just nonsense)
This nail breathes fire
This horse is dead
Three drunken kings
Not yet this, not yet that
I CAPTURE YOU!

I just love every single line of this!  It reminds me of both a mother-of-pearl wall-hanging depicting the mythical heroes of Vietnam, and the lyrics of a Tom Waits song.  Each line is worthy of being tattooed on the neck of a Vietnamese gangsta.

I'm sure it has some basis in Vietnamese history, and my grandfather-in-law could talk about it for an hour and come up with something just as compelling as the Ring Around the Black Death theory.  But I'm happy just to savor the images, and develop my own story to explain it to the kids when the time comes.

What's your favorite disturbing nursery rhyme?

18 comments:

  1. My Chinese father-in-law once sang our daughter a Republic-era song he remembered from his childhood that involved machine guns. I couldn't find that one, but here is another (post-WWII) that it certainly in the same spirit:

    Dolldom [i.e., Doll Kingdom], doll soldiers
    Blond hair, blue eyes
    Doll king, long beard
    Riding a horse out of the palace
    Doll soldiers are in practice
    To guard against the enemy attack
    Machine guns da da da
    Atomic cannon boom boom boom
    [Repeat two times.]

    Lyrics: http://easywaytolearnchinese.blogspot.com/2009/11/chinese-kids-song-doll-country-doll.html

    And ably illustrated here:
    http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNTE4NDA1NzI=.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am disproportionately sad that Ring Around the Rosie doesn't describe the Black Plague. Quit debunking my illusions, dammit.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am slightly disturbed by this last one. Dead horses and capture? Hmm.

    Mary had a little lamb. Because that fuzzy bitch is a STALKER.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Our nanny would sing this song to us. Very traditional South African song.

    Shosholoza (rough translation)
    Go forward
    Go forward
    on those mountains
    train from South Africa.
    Go forward
    Go forward
    You are running away
    You are running away
    on those mountains
    train from South Africa.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-7hajiibrU

    ReplyDelete
  5. first, i hope you didn't take anything i was saying today on dadLabs as anything derogatory toward any specific site or entity. b/c it was nothing more than my honest opinion.

    i've been by your blog a handful of times now (after all, we 40 something fathers of multiples gotta stick together), and each time i do, i enjoy your content very much, not to mention your flair, today's post being a good example.

    w/ regard to nursery rhymes, i always thought go tell aunt rhody was morbid as shit.

    she died in the mill pond while standing on her head. the goslings are mourning. because their mother's dead. geez.

    now hurry up, kid, go tell aunt rhody b/c the greedy bitch can finally make that feather bed she's been dying to make. here's a cut and paste of the actual nursery rhyme:

    Go tell Aunt Rhody,
    Go tell Aunt Rhody,
    Go tell Aunt Rhody
    The old gray goose is dead.

    The one she's been saving,
    The one she's been saving,
    The one she's been saving
    To make a feather bed.

    The goslings are mourning,
    The goslings are mourning,
    The goslings are mourning,
    Because their mother's dead.

    The old gander's weeping,
    The old gander's weeping,
    The old gander's weeping,
    Because his wife is dead.

    She died in the mill pond,
    She died in the mill pond,
    She died in the mill pond
    From standing on her head.

    Go tell Aunt Rhody,
    Go tell Aunt Rhody,
    Go tell Aunt Rhody
    The old gray goose is dead.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think the "This horse is dead" bit is very "Godfather." Though I plan to use it when my daughter asks for a pony and then decides to have a pony-dream ending tantrum. So, like this:

    -You want a pony after that display?! This horse is dead, kiddo!

    I always hated the song "My Grandfather's Clock"

    "It stopped short, never to go again, when the old man died."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Grandfather%27s_Clock

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jack and Jill went up the hill...Terrifying. Ends in slaughter and trepanation.

    More positively, there's a wonderful enactment of it in Nancy Farmer's rather great Sea of Trolls

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Trout--Nothing like a wartime nursery rhyme. I'll bet the Appalachian side of your family has some good ones too.

    @Keely--There's no way you are more disappointed than I am. I've been telling people about that for years!

    @Nubian--That's beautiful! Thanks for the link.

    @JCO--No worries, buddy. Thanks for your kind words and the awesome addition of Aunt Rhody to the collection. It really addresses the central paradox of farm life: we're supposed to empathize with the animals, and then kill them and make use of their carcasses.

    @Nicole--Grandfather's Clock is so sad. It just made me think of the first song I learned on guitar from my dad--"Dog named Blue," which includes the lyrics, "When old Blue died, he died so hard, he shook the ground in my backyard."

    @Dadwhowrites--Gotta check out the Sea of Trolls. Jack and Jill is also one of the rhymes that makes me wonder how it got into the Canon. It's so simple, pointless, and it doesn't even rhyme, really. I could make up fifty better ones in half an hour.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I've always loved the Lithuanian one my grandfather used to sing to me:

    99 bottles of beer on the Wall
    99 bottles of beer....
    Take one down, pass it around...

    Seriously. It's what he sang.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The babes are cuties as always.

    The Vietnamese songs will give me nightmares.

    GREAT TOPIC, though.

    I always thought it was CRAZY that I was trying to put my kids to sleep with a song that says, "And when the bow breaks the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all" or whatever.

    ReplyDelete
  11. "I could make up fifty better ones in half an hour."

    You really should not issue such challenges to yourself on a public forum... I'll accept 5 in 30min.

    ReplyDelete
  12. @DiPi--I had no idea where that song came from. I guess my bus driver in grade school must have been Lithuanian, then.

    @Ed--I think I'm just going to start singing VH's "The Cradle Will Rock" until the girls fall asleep.

    @inertia--Okay, okay. I think I had just pounded the SAHD version of an iced latte (room temperature coffee with recently expired 1/2 and 1/2) when I said that. 5 in 30 minutes sounds do-able.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I am most certainly not trying to be a jerk, but I'm very happy that someone else confused bow and bough, since I've been being mocked for that mistake for 20 years now. Long story only Andy will understand.

    ReplyDelete
  14. "Each line is worthy of being tattooed on the neck of a Vietnamese gangsta."

    Hilarious! I will now follow your blog. :P

    ReplyDelete
  15. Okay, this is not a rhyme, but a Chinese cautionary tale that my mom told me when I was little -

    "There once was a boy so lazy that his mother was afraid to leave him alone because he would not take the effort to feed himself. So, one day, having to go on a long journey, she strung a bunch of donuts/bread with holes on a string around his neck so that they would be within reach. She went on the journey, but came home to find him dead because he ate all the donuts in the front but was too lazy to turn the string around to reach the donuts in the back."

    ReplyDelete
  16. I suppose this puts the nursery rhyme my uncle would sing to me, "Drink the Roofie..Drink the Roofie" into perspective.

    ReplyDelete
  17. fun right? im 2nd gen american from norway and my mil vietnamese too and we've got what sounds like: (i know i'm spelling this all wrong, really sorry!)
    bing bing cha
    bing bing cha
    niyao su lai siu ga
    ga di goy
    ga bak eh?
    chau sai be
    sai be oi see oi?

    i have no idea. my kids were singing it for weeks and when i asked what it meant there was a black dog and a crab that bites your ass.

    ReplyDelete

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