Nos­tal­gia and word play with Paul Lit­tle.

Sub­ver­sion rules in the play­ground.

North & South - - In This Issue -

You can’t beat the clas­sics when it comes to play­ground rhymes. Few oral com­po­si­tions have ever come near the pu­rity of:

“Jin­gle bells, Bat­man smells, Robin’s gone away. Won­der Woman lost her bo­som On the mo­tor­way.”

First sighted in the 1980s, this com­bines trans­gres­sive dis­re­spect for Christ­mas, homo-erotic yearn­ing, gen­der con­fu­sion and a firm ground­ing in the re­al­ity of daily jour­neys, all wrapped up in a con­cise, hummable 15 words.

It’s not a uniquely New Zealand rhyme. As Jan­ice Ack­erly wrote in a piece on play­ground rhymes, orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2002 and adapted on the folk­song.org.nz web­site, New Zealand dit­ties can of­ten be traced back to Bri­tish or other orig­i­nals. This is true even of some­thing so firmly based in New Zealand lived ex­pe­ri­ence as:

“Roll, roll, roll your dope, Scrunch it at the end. Puff, puff, That’s enough. Now pass it to your friend.”

Sung, of course, to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”.

Par­o­dies of well-known tunes have al­ways been pop­u­lar with chil­dren – es­pe­cially catchy TV themes such as that for The Bev­erly Hill­bil­lies, which was used for the grim hu­mour of:

“There once was a man and his name was Tower. He went down town to join Black Power. There once was a man and his name was Bob. He went down town to join Mon­grel Mob. Along came Tower with his 303 And he blew those boys right out of Bev­erly (Hills, that is).”

Local tele­vi­sion spiced up the na­tional an­them when it wormed its way into play­ground ac­tiv­i­ties with:

“God of Na­tions, smell my feet, In the bonds of Short­land Street. Hear our voices, tweet, tweet, tweet. God de­fend our toi­let seat.”

With their sub­ver­sion of words from tra­di­tional game rhymes such as “Or­anges and Lemons”, these verses al­lowed chil­dren to con­struct an imag­i­na­tive world that re­flected both their own sur­round­ings and their anx­i­eties about what they en­coun­tered there – all made bear­able in the form of play.

Play­ground rhymes also vary from re­gion to re­gion, de­spite the ho­mo­gene­ity re­put­edly en­cour­aged by mass and so­cial me­dia. A study con­ducted at the turn of the cen­tury by the Royal So­ci­ety found the fol­low­ing vari­a­tions in one fa­mil­iar rhyme through­out New Zealand: “In the north­ern area, ‘First the worst, sec­ond the best’ is most likely to be fol­lowed by ‘Third the golden ea­gle’. An al­ter­na­tive used largely by North Is­lan­ders is ‘Third the nerd’. Chil­dren in the cen­tral and south­ern re­gions… are more likely to say ‘Third the golden princess’.”

When na­tives of dif­fer­ent re­gions meet and play to­gether, dis­putes over the “cor­rect” ver­sion of “First the Worst” can grow heated.

Lau­rie and Winifred Bauer made an ex­haus­tive study of “Skipping Games and Rhymes” used in New Zealand. Most were in­ter­na­tional in con­tent, but “Cap­tain Cook” has local res­o­nance:

“Cap­tain Cook lost one arm. [Put one hand be­hind back.]

Cap­tain Cook lost the other arm. [Put other hand be­hind back.] Cap­tain Cook lost one eye. [Shut one eye.] Cap­tain Cook lost the other eye. [Shut other eye.]

Cap­tain Cook lost one leg. [Jump on one leg.]

Cap­tain Cook lost the other leg. [Jump out of rope.]

As well as its in­dige­nous ref­er­ences, of course, it also has a fla­grant dis­re­gard for the facts of Cook’s bi­og­ra­phy. Play­ground rhymes were never bound by such pedes­trian con­straints as ac­cu­racy or taste.

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