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
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.
(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?