Jack Sprat Could Eat No Fat (The Bastard!)

I bet you thought this one was about domestic felicity, or some such – a metaphor celebrating those couples whose quirks just complement each other so perfectly that between them there’s never any waste.  One more reason to believe in true love.

Right.

Here’s what the poem actually says:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.

His wife could eat no lean.

And so between them both, you see,

 

They licked the platter clean.

The first two lines should make any sensible reader suspicious.  A man named Jack Sprat avoiding fat might be a quirky-rhymey charming ditty, but what kind of medical condition have you ever heard of that has a problem with lean meat only?  These disorders are too weirdly specific and complementary to be organic.

Come to think of it, the rhyme doesn’t say it is a medical condition that restricts the diets of either Sprat.  And it doesn’t say they don’t like this or that part of the roast – it says they could not eat it.  What’s stopping them?

Then we come to the last line.  They licked.  The platter.  Clean.

Was it dirty when it came to them?  Where they given utensils?  Why the one platter, for the two people?  Even without utensils, why didn’t they use their hands?  Why didn’t this poem ever bother us as kids?  They licked.  The platter.  Clean.

The image we are left with is that of two grown people slobbering face-first, like dogs, over a dirty plate of meat.  Despite having apparently no tools or hands at their disposal, they adhere to their weirdly specific dietary restrictions.  They have to, according to the poem.

Left to our conjecture is the why of it all.  What could bring two people to such a bizarre humiliation?  We can only rationally conclude that what happened to the Sprats is intended to serve as warning to all the world’s unruly diners.  The filet wasn’t good enough for them.  No, because Jack Sprat can’t have fat, and his plate has a little tiny bit of fat on the corner – you see?  His wife, an even bigger asshole, can have no lean, and as you can see the fat content of her steak isn’t nearly high enough.  Well, this one night it seems they sent their plates back one too many times, and the wait-staff finally cracked, tied the couple up and watched them lick leftovers off a platter for their own deranged amusement.

Case regretfully closed.

This Old Man…and what makes him sick

This old man, he played one

He played knick-knack on my thumb

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played two

He played knick-knack on my shoe

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played three

He played knick-knack on my knee

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played four

He played knick-knack on my door

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played five

He played knick-knack on my hive

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played six

He played knick-knack with some sticks

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played seven

He played knick-knack up to

Heaven Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played eight

He played knick-knack on my gate

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played nine

He played knick-knack on my spine

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played ten

He played knick-knack once again

Knick-knack paddy whack

Give the dog the bone

This old man came rolling home.

What kind of sick game is this knick-knack, you may wonder, snickering immaturely to yourself.  What kind of game can you play on someone’s thumb, and shoe, and knee, and door, and hive, and spine?  There must be some kind of innuendo there!  In fact, that’s all in your dirty mind.  I did actual research, with the internet, and found out that “knick knack” was what you called it when you beat out a particular rhythm with spoons.  The old man isn’t playing a game – he’s playing music.  Poorly.  According to our narrator, his first attempt is a count of one – a steady metronome carried out on the poor witness’s thumb.  The last line asserts the old man will later “come rolling home”, implying the narrator is a member of his immediate family.  Most likely, it’s the spoon-musician’s kid referring to him as the “old man.”

The old guy’s main characteristics so far are annoyingness.  Then comes the ominous, “Knick knack paddy wack” –and you get the sense that the old man’s knick-knacking has gotten out of control.  He’s taken his act far from the home – to a paddy, which dictionary.com assures me is basically a bog where you grow rice.  The knick-knacking ends abruptly here, with a “wack” – immediately followed by his dog receiving a bone.  Wading through the high paddy waters, it’s possible he accidentally wacked some small animal to death with his out-of-control spoon-music, and then goes home.

But it happens again the next day.  He starts out, again, annoyingly, smacking out a two-beat rhythm on his kid’s shoe.  Then finds himself again in the paddy, and again – wack!  And his dog gets a bone.  It’s not that easy to accidentally hit small animals with spoons.  Maybe he’s doing it on purpose.  Or – maybe we should be using the other definition of “wack”…the one that refers to the kills of crime rings.  The old man seems to have stumbled into the boggy dumping ground of some criminal element.  Rather than being disturbed or concerned, however, the gross old spoon-musician starts wrenching up decaying limbs to feed his dog.

Then he starts knick-knacking again the next day, to a count of three, continuing an increasingly ritualistic-looking pattern, where he spoon-bangs weird parts of his kid’s body, varying architectural crevices of symbolic importance and elements of the natural world then scurrying off to the paddy to gorge his hound on dead people.  Then he rolls around through the paddy until he finds his way home.  Apparently, he lives very near the paddy.  The paddy may even be his own land, and the rice growing there his own produce.  The young narrator does not venture a guess as to how the bodies came to be in his rice paddy; in his innocence, in fact, the horrifying tenor of what he’s describing seems to be taken light-heartedly as some funny, playful quirks of his father.  Perhaps the stringing-together in song of all the oddities he’s observed indicate a child at the very brink of discovering the grotesque darkness underlying every element of his little world.

Bye Bye Baby

Bye, baby Bunting,

Daddy’s gone a-hunting,

Gone to get a rabbit skin

To wrap the baby Bunting in.

The perturbing thing that should immediately strike this song’s every listener is the tone of unapologetic child abandonment. Daddy’s already gone a-hunting by the time the first word breaks, and we realize the singer of the song, whoever she or he may be, is also leaving now.

The narrator doesn’t tell the baby where or why she or he is going, but makes a point of filling the tot in on Daddy’s objectives; a defensive gesture, surely, and smacking of guilt. It isn’t clear whether the baby will be in the charge of someone else, or left entirely alone. Either way, something about the hasty departures are coming across as sinister.

The facts as we have them regarding Daddy don’t make much sense, either. This doesn’t sound like any successful hunting trip I’ve ever heard described. Father’s agenda’s set in stone –– he’s committed to bringing home a rabbit, with no line of exception. We also have it plainly that Daddy’s interested in the rabbit’s skin exclusively, with no consideration for the meat or paws. Considering “Bunting” is a term of endearment implying fat, perhaps these folks are well-off enough to not have to factor in sustainability or logistical surprise.

But that only makes the abruptness of Daddy’s sojourn more bizarre. Daddy left before the babe knew that he was gone. Daddy left without saying goodbye. Daddy left as though realizing suddenly for the first time that his infant needed wrapping, as though there was not a scrap of cloth about that could suffice, as though there would never be another chance to slay a rabbit–

Wait. Daddy…never said that he was hunting rabbits.

He’s getting a rabbit skin. Two animals keep rabbit skins in their possession: rabbits, and men.

It’s suddenly very clear to us why Daddy is so certain of what he will be bringing home, and why he left in such a hurry.  It is apparent now that Daddy has impulsively taken his weapon of choice after whichever miserable wretch happened by garbed in furry finery.  Our narrator has, apparently, made a very respectable judgment call, and taken leave of the baby belonging to a devoted, if deranged, hunter.

A Tisket, A Tasket – a Basketful of Pain

A-tisket, a-tasket

A green and yellow basket

I wrote a letter to my love

And on the way I dropped it

I dropped it

I dropped it

Yes, on the way I dropped it

A little boy he picked it up and put it in his pocket.

 

Most of us having heard these lyrics have reasonably assumed that the author here is no Casanova. He – most of us probably figured this was a dude – repeats himself four times in nine lines, opens with nonsense words and random basket imagery and goes on to stutteringly convey the bumbling sequence of events in which his letter was lost.

In a recent re-examination of this classic, however, some bits of this poem appear strikingly out of place. Even taking into account the author’s apparent flakiness, some things in his tale just don’t add up.

How, for example, does our narrator know that a little boy picked the letter up and put it in his pocket?

It’s conceivable that the writer doubled back on his trail once he realized he’d dropped his letter, arriving at the exact place where he happened to have let it go just as a little boy was picking it up. But then, why wouldn’t he have just notified the lad that the letter belonged to him and simply corrected the situation?   What the author describes is a rather more enigmatic scene – he drops a letter and watches in silence until a random boy finds it and puts it in his pocket.

It cannot be said that the letter’s author intended this course of events at the outset – he clearly states that it was on his way to delivering the letter when things began to fall apart. He did not intend to drop his letter. He did not intend for the little boy to pick it up. But something happened on the way to his destination – something that caused him to drop his dispatch and watch in apparent stupefaction, as a stranger picked it up and walked away.

Having been left no other clue, we must finally call into question the significance of that opening, nonsense image of a brightly-colored basket.

If at first we imagined the basket tucked under the arm of the poem’s narrator, we must now reconsider; if that had been the case, the devoted lover surely would have tucked the letter safely inside, where it would not have been dropped in the first place.

No – this basket belonged to someone else. Someone blocking our narrator’s way – someone our narrator was never able to pass. The tenor of the rhyme – stuttering, fraught with repetition and a fixation on the key sensory images including the colors of the stranger’s basket, and the whereabouts of his dropped letter – are most appropriately taken not as the chronic indicators of a foolish personality, but the situational response of a person under trauma.

What could have caused such intense duress in a writer delivering a love-letter? What could have caused him to drop that letter in the first place? What could have left him stunned and helpless to observe as a child came along and later pocketed his precious correspondence?

What was in that stranger’s basket?

The only thing a vibrantly colored basket can contain and still be seen as horrifying. The same thing kept today in brightly-colored coolers and thermal bags in medical units the world over.

Human.  Innards.

Tragically, it seems this dear ditty’s narrator stumbled into the hands of a black-market organ trafficker, who promptly attacked, ripped out his most marketable bits, and slung him into whatever shallow ditch or dale afforded him a view of his letter laying in the road. It is with helpless horror that he later observes the young child pick up the letter and carry it obliviously off, presumably into the same hands that finished off our narrator.

These lyrics can only be seen as the gasping last words of a lover struggling without being able to make sense of what has happened, to warn whoever it is that finally finds him – go back the way you came. There are merchants of death ahead.

Case regretfully closed.

Pop Goes the Weasel

You may have heard the song involving a too-rambunctious monkey and the weasel who goes “pop” around pointy shoe-maker’s tools and imagined a scenario where a rodent pricks his toe and bursts like a balloon. A closer inspection of these lyrics, however, reveals a much more harrowing narrative – this is the timeless tale of a weasel’s acquisition of his very first handgun.

Round and round the cobbler’s bench
The monkey chased the weasel
The monkey thought it was all in good fun
Pop! goes the weasel

The juicy drama unfolds, like most juicy dramas, around a cobbler’s bench. The monkey, easily two to four times the weasel’s size, thought it was hilarious to chase the skinny bastard around a bench littered with picks, nails and other terribly dangerous items. I think it’s fair to assume that damn monkey had been terrifying the weasel for years for his own cruel amusement. Clearly, this monkey lacks the moral fiber to have been perturbed by a case of spontaneous weasel combustion. So the weasel takes the only logical course of action available, and fires off his handgun.

The word “cobbler” lends the tale an added layer of sketchiness. Most commonly, it’s interpreted to mean a shoe-maker. But the other kind of cobbler may be more relevant – the kind of illegal professional who creates false passports, visas, diplomas, and other documents. So we have an innocuous shoe-repair shop fronting a darker, more lucrative side-trade. No wonder the monkey’s such a brute; he’s not just some ill-trained pet. He’s the cobbler’s enforcer.

Giddy with exhilaration after firing his first gun and cowing his bully co-worker into submission, the strapped rodent goes on a mad terror spree through the streets.

A penny for a spool of thread
A penny for a needle
That’s the way the money goes
Pop! goes the weasel

From forgery, the weasel has quickly progressed to penny-thieving and shaking down hard-taxed merchants. Where will his depravity take him next?

Every night when I get home
The monkey’s on the table
Take a stick and knock it off
Pop! goes the weasel.

The relationship between the narrator and the weasel finally becomes clear; the monkey, who had spared no qualm in bullying the poor scrawny weasel, is held in check by the narrator only with nightly beatings-by-stick. It seems the narrator was supposed to be in charge all along. Unfortunately, the weasel’s had enough of that monkey’s sass – if before the gunblast was enough to frighten the monkey in submission, now it is enough to finish him. There is a clear message to the narrator in this as well: the weasel will now be calling the shots.

If you’re skeptical that the song is meant to tell the tale of a seedy criminal underworld inhabited by deutshbag animals, just listen to this lesser-known alternate verse:

Jimmy’s got the whooping cough
And Timmy’s got the measles
That’s the way the story goes
Pop! goes the weasel.

Case regretfully closed.

Hush Little Baby – Why It Creeps Us Out

I can only assume this flagrantly homicidal gem of a lullaby has escaped notoriety primarily because everyone who’s ever heard it falls asleep before the most incriminating verses are aired.  Whether the (one might say) druggedly soothing little ditty is responsible for any violent sadistic strains lapping at your subconscious is, of course, for you to decide, but perhaps you’d benefit from a good breakdown of all the evidence.

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,
Mama’s going to buy you a mockingbird.
If that mockingbird won’t sing,
Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring.
If that diamond ring turns brass,
Mama’s going to buy you a looking glass.
If that looking glass gets broke,
Mama’s going to buy you a billy goat.
If that billy goat won’t pull,
Mama’s going to buy you a cart and bull.
If that cart and bull turn over,
Mama’s going to buy you a dog named Rover.
If that dog named Rover won’t bark,
Mama’s going to buy you a horse and cart.
If that horse and cart fall down,
You’ll still be the sweetest little boy in town

//Hush Little Baby, Don’t say a Word//

Well, right off we can scratch the idea that this is a song intended for babies.  Babies cry, they don’t use words.  Mama doesn’t say “don’t cry,” “don’t yell”, or “don’t be obnoxious”, as a normal mama might be expected to hush a child.  She very specifically exhorts her child not to speak.

//Mama’s Gonna Buy You a Mockingbird//

Presents are usually the one occasion when you expect and delight in a child’s being noisy.  Birthdays, Christmas, whatever – any normal parent with a video camera to set up wouldn’t think twice about capturing a permanent record of those delirious squeals.  But THIS Mama wants her kid to shut up and accept, not just any present, but a PET – a bird, and a bird famous for incessant vocalizations at that.  There can be no doubt after this that Mama’s motive is something other than peace and quiet.  Mama’s use of the future tense is particularly striking; why tell a child about an extravagant present ahead of time, after you’ve just finished saying “hush”?  This whole setup smacks of bribery; Mama isn’t asking for a momentary reprieve from chaos.  She’s clearly trying to buy her tot’s permanent silence.

//If the mockingbird won’t sing…mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.//

Again, isn’t it odd how favorably Mama regards the prospect of the child’s pet making noise?  It sounds as though the bird’s noise-making abilities are its central draw; a silent bird apparently has no value and must be replaced with a more extravagant gift.  Putting aside for the moment the disturbing implication that Mama would regard a living animal as disposable in the event that it doesn’t behave as she would like it to, we ought to consider what sort of heavy silence she is trying to avoid in the first place.  Something is not being said, cannot be said, and Mama is doing all she can to smother that eery quiet with the promise of a song.  Additionally, it must hereafter be noted that Mama is totally loaded.  Mockingbirds ain’t cheap, and diamond rings even less so, but it is Mama’s persistent faith in the power of luxury goods to buy her child’s silence that speaks the most to her lust for material riches.

//If that diamond ring turns brass, Mama’s gonna buy you a looking glass.//

There is nothing blatantly incriminating in this line.  But there’s a hinted fondness to illusion, here – perhaps even subtle manipulation.  Diamond rings don’t turn brass, so either Mama never had the diamond to begin with or she’s able to mask its value.  Either way, the effect is to convey to the child-subject that a gift in the hand – even one of everlasting stone – isn’t beyond the powers of the universe to tweak, change, and ultimately destroy.  A pattern has emerged wherein Mama’s gifts lose value even before they are had.  It is as though Mama is using gifts less as a means of expressing affection than of favor – and she wants her kid to remember, what has been given can be taken.

As if to reinforce that message, the next proffered gift is a simple looking-glass.  An ordinary mirror,  in such sharp contrast to the elaborate expense of a diamond or the exotic delight of a mockingbird, it’s hard to imagine it NOT being intended on a symbolic level.  A mirror, should the diamond prove not good enough to hold the child’s tongue – a calculated invitation to reflect on one’s own value.

//If that looking glass gets broke, Mama’s gonna buy you a billy goat.//

Now we come to the first overt appeal to violence.  If the looking glass mysteriously “gets broke”, are we expected to believe the child is in danger?  It can’t have been an accident, can it, if Mama’s singing about it so long before it’s happened, and it can’t have been the child’s fault, or Mama wouldn’t return with yet another expensive gift.  Does anyone else notice just how many steps ahead this Mama is thinking?

//If that billy goat won’t pull, Mama’s gonna buy you a cart and bull//

We return again to the noted ease with which Mama can cast off living creatures as worthless when they don’t behave as she would like them to.  More sinister yet is the answer to an obvious question – what use does a child have for a billy-goat?  According to Mama, the goat’s purpose is to…pull.  We can assume the very wealthy kid isn’t working in a field.  Beasts of burden trained to pull have been used as torture devices.  It doesn’t sound like Mama’s bribing anymore.

//If that cart and bull turn over,//

Holy shit – this bitch ain’t fuckin around!  She’s gone from sly allusions to torture to the prophesying of a much more sizeable calamity.  Any injury caused the bull in this scenario is, of course, mere collateral damage – anything to send a message.  And just in case the kid thinks he’s getting off the hook in the event he manages to survive a cart-and-bull collision –

//Mama’s gonna buy you a dog named Rover
If that dog named Rover won’t bark//

Any dog named Rover – which would indicate any dog of feral (or at least stray) origin.  And Mama wants him to bark.  Who wants an untrained, barking dog for a child’s companion?  Torture artists, that’s who.  And if that fails to garner the brat’s allegiance –

//Mama’s gonna buy you a horse and cart
If that horse and cart fall down,
You’ll still be the sweetest little boy in town//

In case you missed the point earlier, little baby – your Mama wants you dead.  A leisurely-moving bull-and-cart crash may leave you wounded, but a horse and cart that falls down (down where?  Off a bridge, into a ravine?) – well, there are no survivors from disasters of that magnitude.  But you’ll still be the sweetest little boy in town.   Because you won’t be spilling any secrets.

Looking at all the evidence, it’s clear that Mama married up, to a wealthy old man who produced just one descendent – the small child who’s lone witness to his father’s vicious murder inspired the tranquil melody and insidious lyrics inexplicably beloved by mothers all around the world.

Case regretfully closed.

Mama’s Little Monkeys

Four little monkeys jumping on the bed
One fell off and bumped his head
Mama called the doctor and the doctor said:
“No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”

This rhyme refrains with one less monkey jumpin’ on the bed each round, until there are no more monkeys to sing about.

You may be thinking this is a story about a mama monkey and her four monkey babies in a fantasy world where monkey people talk and live in houses with beds like human folk.

But is that really what’s going on?

Mama is never referred to as a monkey. Nor is the doctor.

Mama and the doctor are able to speak and use telephones – their behavior is very human. But the little monkeys? They jump up and down with no apparent signs of intelligence, or even enjoyment, as one after another falls off of the bed and becomes incapacitated. Though mama is evidently concerned enough for each little monkey’s head injury to seek medical consultation, the simians exhibit neither empathy nor concern for their fallen siblings. They are as insensible to the pain of others as they are to the personal risks they take – they seem unable to stop or even to consider stopping. What we have here is no childlike pleasure at the prospect of a moment’s disobedience – this is a thrashing, violent hopping frenzy of such intensity that, by song’s end, every little monkey is put out of commission. The human woman we sing of is inexplicably in possession of a brood of creatures who have, to judge by their behavior, too little intelligence and too much raw energy to be fully human or monkey.

And yet, she is called Mama.

This brings us to the Doctor. Mama seems to have access to a private line – she calls the doc, not the hospital or the doctor’s office, and he or she answers directly. She speaks to the same person each time she calls – The Doctor, not A Doctor. So, it seems Mama has quite a close connection with this physician. All the more astounding, then, is the doctor’s relentless reply – “No more monkeys jumpin’ on the bed.”

It may not be fair to surmise from the missing ‘g’ on the end of the word ‘jumping’ that the Doctor acquired his or her credentials at an academic institution of lax standards. We can certainly argue, however, that the Doctor’s advice lacks all the hallmarks of a traditional medical exam – there is no talk of size, color, or shape of any bumps or lacerations sustained. There is no question of breathing or heart-rate, no concern that the monkeys are able to answer simple questions or are even conscious. There is no attempt to schedule a follow-up examination. The Doctor, in short, seems not at all intent on helping these little monkeys.

This, despite the over-involvement indicated by Mama’s having a private line and her compulsive tendency to call after each little monkey’s fall, regardless of the helpfulness of her doc’s advice. We can only logically conclude that this unorthodox, overly-involved medical expert made use of Mama’s generous womb to incubate his mad human-monkey hybrid until such a time as they might be medically able to meet the world.

But they were not ready.

Mama’s grotesque gestation might, indeed, have won the Doc a place in the halls of history – had her spawn, as intended, developed with the minds of men and the athletic prowess of apes, and the next stage of human evolution been bolstered by its last. As we have seen, however – this is not what happened. The little monkeys burst from the uterus in a bestial hopping rage beyond anyone’s control. As is often the case with genetic mutations, their skulls likely were too thin to sustain the impact of a fall from their maternal bed – they succumbed, one after the next, to certain doom, until the insistent mantra of their shamed creator came, at last, to chilling fruition – “No more monkeys jumpin’ on the bed.”