Joe: Welcome to Riffs on Riffs, where we explore the surprising connection between songs past and present and discuss the fascinating stories that make music a universal language. I’m Joe Watson and I’m here with my co-host Toby Brazwell. What’s up my friend?
Toby: Nothing much man just living in a quarantine paradise. You know me, I try to find the silver lining in some of the tough situations that life tosses at you, and one thing that has been good about all of this is the time that I’ve been able to spend with my family and all of the conversations that have made us a better family.
Joe: I totally agree with that! If done right, quarantine life can be a thing of beauty — at least some of the time. Trust me, I’m going as stir crazy as the rest of you. But the family time you speak of is also what inspired this episode.
Toby: Right you are! So my son Shiv and my wife were discussing lyrics from a children’s song they took really special notice to. They suggested that having us talk about some of the weirdest children’s songs and their history would make for a good episode.
Joe: After doing some research, we realized that there are a lot of creepy kids’ songs out there. Which is crazy, because we all know that words have power. It’s somewhat mind boggling to me that we let some of these lyrics fly right under the radar.
Toby: Especially if our children are singing them.
Joe: So true! So where do you want to start? Itsy Bitsy Spider? I’ll tell you what, that poor spider was as tortured as that old Greek dude that had to push a rock up a hill for all eternity.
Toby: You mean Sisyphus right? How so?
Joe: I mean, think of the lyrics. Spider climbing, rain comes, washes it down, sun dries the rain, rinse and repeat. Sounds awful.
Toby: It does. It sounds like you’re not getting anywhere, and just when you think things are going well, everything falls apart.
Joe: It’s almost like a metaphor for 2020
Toby: Right! That’s perfectly it!
Well, let’s leave Charlotte and her web out of this episode. I don’t want this show to somehow become a repeating tragedy. Let’s instead start with a song that shares a name of one of the songs from a group we discussed in an earlier episode — “Pop Goes the Weasel”
Joe: So this time we are not referring to the 3rd Bass song that dissed Vanilla Ice?
Toby: Nope, I’m actually talking about the nursery rhyme that came before that. The one that goes:
All around the Mulberry Bush,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey stopped to pull up his sock,
Pop! goes the weasel.
Joe: That’s the version we are familiar with here in the States, but the original British version of this rhyme has a totally different meaning from a weasel getting chased. The original lyrics go like this:
"A penny for a spool of thread, a penny for a needle" and "Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle.
Toby: These lyrics definitely paint a different picture once you do some research. The term “pop” was slang for“pawning” and the term “weasel” was actually a word that meant “coat”. In summation this song is about times being hard up and pawning one's own clothes in order to buy necessities.
Joe: Pop Goes the Weasel was written in the 1700’s, but other than the titles it was originally just a song with no lyrics. Those came later, but amazingly enough there was a specific set of dance moves that people did for this song.
Toby: Oh this is fantastic. So I read up on those and I will have an instructional video on Youtube to show everyone how to do it! Once this Coronavirus is over I can’t wait to break out this dance at the next First Friday party.
Joe: Oh boy. This is one of those times that I’m happy that we are in a virtual reality. But if anyone is interested in joining my hip thrusting friend and wants to learn the moves for this dance they can be found at the Library of Congress. Or just check Youtube for Toby’s instructional video. Can we please move on now?
Toby: This next song is dedicated to my lawn and the knock out roses around my house that have been taking a beating with all this sun!
Joe: You must be talking about the infamous nursery rhyme that goes like this:
It's raining, it's pouring, The old man is snoring. He bumped his head on the back of the bed and he couldn't get up in the morning.
Toby: Although this nursery rhyme was included in the Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes published in 1912, one of the earliest versions of this song was recorded in 1932 by a folkorist named Herpert Halpert.
Joe: Wait, Herb Alpert recorded It’s Raining, It’s Pouring? Was that the B side of Rise???
Toby: Not Herb Alpert, Herpert Halpert. Totally different guy. Though if Herb Alpert HAD recorded it as a B side, it probably would have went straight to #1. Because that’s what happens to all the B sides we talk about on this show.
Joe: Which is also why my next album will only have B sides.
Toby: Well before we get back to “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring” and take another look at those somewhat worrisome lyrics, we’re going to take a quick break. We’ll return with Riffs on Riffs in just a moment.
Toby: And we’re back with Riffs on Riffs. So Joe I’d like to take another look at the lyrics for “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring”. One meaning of the song could be that this man was sleeping and then bruised his head while trying to get out of bed and needed time to recover. Another interpretation of the song is that he hit his head so hard that he died due to the injury. So not only did he not get up that morning, he NEVER got back up.
Joe: Well, that got dark real quick! Both interpretations are believable, but it does leave some questions. I mean if someone heard him snoring, wouldn’t they also hear him bumping his head as well? And does anyone care enough about this man to come to his aid? Where’s his wife in all of this? It all seems suspicious.
Toby: I agree. This song is an early precursor to the commercial for the Life Alert system. “I’ve fallen, hit my head… and can’t get up!” These types of situations remind me of what they always tell you in airports…. SEE Something…. SAY Something….
Joe: Like maybe if you saw a cradle fall out of a tree? I guess the first question I have is why is there a cradle in a tree in the first place? This is the best way to rock a baby? What, are your arms too tired?
Toby: Let’s run through those lyrics to Rock-a-Bye:
Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top. When the wind blows the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks ,the cradle will fall. And down will come Baby, Cradle and all.
Joe: Be careful man, you're gonna put me to sleep! Despite your beautiful voice, this song is easily one of the creepiest of the nursery rhymes. I mean it’s like Chucky wrote it or something.
Toby: I remember taking a hard look at this song right after our son, Shiv was born. Parents to newborns are so careful to make sure that their baby’s are taken care of. This song is just a nightmare put to a pretty tune.
Joe: This is certainly a popular tune that a lot of people have discussed over the years as being creepy. There are a lot of theories surrounding the origin of the song. One of them is that it originated back in the 17th century by Englishmen observing how Native American women rocked their babies to sleep in birch wood cradles suspended in trees.
Toby: If someone were to do that now…. it would be a very quick call from children’s services. So for all of you people looking for a way to pass your time during quarantine… birchwood cradles suspended from a tree in your backyard should NOT be your next do it yourself project.
Joe: People please stick with the knock out roses. There’s another theory that the song’s lyrics were used by the British Navy in the 17th century. The British cabin boys would climb to the highest point on the ship — the crow’s nest — to look out for enemies. The crow’s nest has also been called the cradle or treetop.
Toby: The front of the ship is called the bough, and when the wind blows the “cradle” refers to the entire ship — the crow’s nest will rock as well. So that explanation definitely makes sense to me. It’s interesting that musically, people that recognize the power of children’s songs. Specifically the melodies of these songs, and that’s why they've been sampled and put to use in the way of selling records.
Joe: For example, Shawn Mullins had his only #1 hit with his song Lullaby in 1998, and that chorus specifically uses the Rock-a-Bye line.
Toby: It’s kind of a downer in it’s own right, about a depressed girl dreaming of a life that’s not her own. Though I guess the chorus paints a slightly brighter picture.
Joe: Another example that comes to mind is Eminem’s use of the children’s song Hush little Baby for his song “Mockingbird” off of his Encore album released in 2004. Hush Little Baby is believed to have originated in the Southern United States and no one specifically knows who wrote it but the message is clear. The song's purpose is to soothe a crying baby by offering presents.
Toby: So note to parents… if you want your child to grow up to act like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka then this song is for you!
Joe: I’m rusty on my Wonka trivia. Which one was Veruca?
Toby: Veruca was the rich girl that sang- you know what? Let me sing this for you because I love this song!
I want the world
I want the whole world
I want to lock it all up in my pocket
My bar of Chocolate
Give it to me
You don’t remember that? She sang that song with so much fervor in her heart. That was the day that word was introduced! That young lady was singing her heart out. It just so happens to be the name of an alternative rock band from Chicago that started in ’93 and is still rocking. I’m going to leave one of their songs called Volcano Girls on the playlist for this episode for those interested in checking them out!
Joe: I remember them, they had a hit in the 90s with the song Seether. We’ll throw that on the playlist, too. Alright, here’s a random question for you. How do you like your eggs?
Toby: I can eat them any number of ways, but nothing beats a well-made omelet.
Joe: Ah, well in order to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs, right? Which brings us to our next rhyme. You remember Humpty Dumpty?
Toby: Sure do. Poor dude fell off a wall, basically died on the scene as the medics weren’t able to resuscitate him.
Joe: That’s the interesting thing about this nursery rhyme. Besides once again featuring rather dark subject matter, it’s about this odd anthropomorphic egg character. Which I’ve never quite understood. Do you have any insight for us?
Toby: There are some interesting theories about Humpty Dumpty’s origin, but no one is really sure where it really came from. The first published version showed up in 1797, with some slightly different lyrics:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.
Now that's a lot of people!
Joe: Same gist as the version we all know, which substitutes the last couple of lines with “All the king’s horses and all the king's men couldn’t put humpty together again.” But note how neither mention the fact that Humpty is an egg.
Toby: Nope. One of the most common theories is that Humpty Dumpty was originally published as a riddle, with “egg” being the answer to the riddle. But there’s another story that Humpty is actually a cannon, with origins going back to 1648 and the English civil war.
Joe: I like this one! The story goes that there was a cannon sitting on a wall, and that cannon was nicknamed Humpty Dumpty. Why, I’m not sure — that wouldn’t be my first pick for naming a cannon. I’d like something with a little more panache, like “Doombringer” or “Run Back Home to Mama”.
Toby: Humpty the cannon was struck by a shot from the Parliamentarians and fell off the wall. The Royalists, aka “all the king’s men” — tried to raise the cannon back up to use in the battle but couldn’t do it. They couldn’t put it back together again.
Joe: It’s a great story, and even showed up on the Colchester, England tourist board website. But it’s also total bunk. It was made up in the mid-1950s as part of several spoof nursery rhyme histories, and somehow it managed to fool some academics and become urban legend.
Toby: So, what we have here is fake news?
Joe: Indeed, my friend. And all of this can’t help but remind me of another Humpty that pulled off a fun little ruse for many years. And I know you know where I’m going with this. The group Digital Underground not only helped launch the career of Tupac, one of its founding members was a rapper by the name of Shock G. Many of our listeners know him better as his alter ego, Humpty Hump.
Toby: Listen. When this was revealed to me, it crushed me. Much like our cannon on the wall story, the Humpty Hump character was both pure genius AND completely fabricated. In this case, Humpty was the invention of Gregory Jacobs, aka Shock G. How’s this for a fictionalized backstory: Humpty Hump was allegedly born Edward Ellington Humphrey III and was lead singer for Smooth Eddie and the Humpers until a freak kitchen accident with a deep fryer burned his nose and he became a rapper.
Joe: And somehow no one ever caught on to the fact that this was made up?
Toby: Edward Ellington Humphrey III. That means there were two other dudes! That had children! And the mother of the child ok'd that name! The initials are “eeh”.
Joe: We are a gullible public.
Toby: I believed it Joe.
Joe: Me too. Next thing I know you’re going to start telling me that people believe a global pandemic is really just a government conspiracy or a hoax.
Toby: Yeah, about that… anyway, Humpty Hump was an over the top persona, complete with cartoonish outfits and Grouch Marx glasses and nose disguise.
Joe: And he even had his own dance!
Toby: Digital Underground released the The Humpty Dance in 1990, and it hit #1 on the Rap singles charts as well as #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. But all that new-found popularity also caused some issues with live performances.
Joe: Shock G was working hard to keep up the illusion that Humpty was a real person. Earl Humphrey is even listed as having a songwriting credit. That’s all well and good, except when both Shock and Humpty have to be on stage at the same time!
Toby: This sounds like a time for stunt doubles.
Joe: Right you are. There were 3 others that stepped into play the Humpty character at shows and live events — Shock’s little brother Kent, an artist by the name of Michael Webster, and the video rep for Tommy Boy records at the time, Rod Houston. They would either play Shock or Humpty depending on which was needed, and even did photo shoots. For a few years there was a promo photo of Digital Underground in which Webster is actually playing Humpty. Which begs the question, who would play you on tv?
Toby: That’s a really good question. You know what, if I had my way, Idris Elba, all day.
Joe: Humpty is a fun bit, and not only does the song The Humpty Dance owe a debt of gratitude to George Clinton and Parliament since that’s where a lot of the samples came from, but the character does as well.
Toby: Here’s what Shock G had to say about the inspiration and creation for Humpty:
“George Clinton used to use his anonymousness to keep paparazzi and record company people off of him when he didn’t want to answer to them. People used to wonder like, ‘Which one is George Clinton? He’s either Starchild or Sir Nose…’ You never really got a good look at him.
“Then I started realizing how lucky I was to have this band member who doesn’t complain, who I don’t get the extra plane ticket for, and is always in the studio anytime I need him. Who I can pay, but keep his money… So on paper, We got to split this four ways: T. Shakur, Money B, G. Jacobs, E. Humphrey, because Humpty’s verse counted; it mattered.”
Joe: Musically, the Humpty Dance has quite a legacy as well. The drum track for the song is a mashup of “Sing a Simple Song” by Sly and the Family Stone, as well as “Theme from the Black Hole” and “Let’s Play House” from Parliament.
Toby: The resulting beat has become one of the most heavily sampled hip hop tracks with over 140 songs using it, including “Blow Your Mind” from Redman, “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J, “Return of the Mack” by Mark Morrison, “Stop What Ya Doin” by Apathy, and even the Spice Girls for “If U Can’t Dance”.
Joe: With all of the royalty checks, I bet Humpty could pay some more of the king’s men to put him back together.
Toby: Or at least have someone take a look at that nose.
Joe: Well my friend, we could certainly continue down this path. I mean, we haven’t even gotten to Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater or the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. But alas, we are out of time. Can you tell the good people what we covered today?
Toby: We took a look at the dark, pseudo-hidden meanings of a few children’s songs, including Pop Goes the Weasel, It’s Raining, It’s Pouring, Rock-a-Bye Baby, and Humpty Dumpty. We connected the dots to songs like Eminem’s song“Mockingbird” and Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance.”
Joe: Two more songs that should terrify children everywhere! Thanks again for joining us on this crazy journey, and be sure to check out the playlist for this episode on Spotify and Apple Music. Just do a search for Riffs on Riffs. While you're at it, please leave us a review on whatever platform you listen — it just might help someone else stumble upon our witty banter and bad puns. Finally, be sure to dialog with us on social, @riffsonriffs. We post artist did-you-knows, music related articles, and of course all things Riffs to keep you in the know. As always, thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time for Riffs on Riffs.
Toby: Keep listening. Huzzah.