Jump-rope Rhymes

I’ve been reading essays by Joseph Mitchell, stories which were published back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in the New Yorker magazine. He was quite a writer, a denizen of New York who liked to hang out with fisher-folk and river-men. Mitchell had that rare gift — he could imaginatively reconstruct conversations. I’ll present some more examples in a subsequent post, but here’s a well-depicted scene from a bygone era. One fine spring day Mitchell was visiting a shad fisherman on his barge:

Some young girls — there were perhaps a dozen of them, and they were eight or nine or maybe ten years old — had come down one of the paths from River Road, and now they were chasing each other around on the riverbank. They were as overexcited as blue jays, and their fierce, jubilant, fresh young voices filled the air.

“School’s out,” said Harry.

Several of the girls took up a position near the shore end of the footwalk to Harry’s barge. Two of them started turning a rope and singing a rope-jumping song, a third ran in and started jumping the rope, and the others got in line. The song began:

                     "Mama, Mama,
                    I am ill.
                    Send for the doctor
                    To give me a pill.
                    Doctor, Doctor,
                    Will I die?
                    Yes, my child,
                    And so will I --- "

Mr. Hewitt looked at them gloomily. “They get louder every year,” he said.

[Some time went by as the four men talked and enjoyed the day. Let’s rejoin them:]

Mr. Townsend and Mr. Hewitt and I had been listening closely to Harry, and none of us had been paying any further attention to the young girls jumping rope on the riverbank. Shortly after Harry stopped talking, all of us became aware at the same moment that the girls turning the rope were singing a new song. Just then, the girl jumping missed a jump, and another girl ran in to take her place, whereupon the girls turning the rope started the new song all over again. Their voices were rollicking, and they laughed as they sang. The song began:

                "The worms crawl in,
                  The worms crawl out.
                  They eat your guts
                  And spit them out.
                  They bring their friends
                  And their friends' friends too,
                  And there's nothing left
                  When they get through...."

Harry laughed. “They’ve changed it a little,” he said. “That line used to go, ‘And you look like hell when they get through.’ ”

” ‘The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out. They play pinochle on your snout,’ ” said Mr. Townsend. “That’s the way I remember it. ‘One little worm who’s not so shy crawls up your nose and out your eye.’ That’s another line I remember.”

“Let’s go inside,” said Mr. Hewitt. “It’s getting cold out here. We’ll all catch pneumonia.”

“You know what they used to say about pneumonia, Joe,” Harry said. ” ‘Pneumonia is the old man’s friend’ ”

“A lot of what they used to say,” said Mr. Hewitt, “could just as well’ve been left unsaid.”


14 comments on “Jump-rope Rhymes

  1. Virginia says:

    The 1950s version of that little poem that Hannibal kids knew was sort of an admonition. I probably would have forgotten it long ago, but received a stern correction from my father for reciting it. I hadn’t really linked it to reality until that time. Anyway here it is as I remember it.

           Don't you laugh when the hearse goes by, 
           Cause some day you're going to die.
           They'll wrap you up in a great big sheet
           And drop you in a hole about six feet deep.
           It all goes well for about a week
           And then your coffin begins to leak. 
           The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out.
           The ants play pinocle up your snout.
  2. Joan says:

        Did you ever think when the hearse rolls by 
        That someday it might be you or I?  
        They wrap you up in a great big sheet 
        And bury you about six feet deep.
        The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, 
        The worms play pinochle on your snout.
        The worms crawl, out the worms crawl in, 
        The worms play volleyball on your chin.

    (There is , of course much more to the hearse song but I was spared the more ghoulish verses when I was a kid. Thankful for that. Check it out on the net, but be prepared to have that song stuck in your brain for an annoyingly long time.)

  3. Virginia says:

    You aren’t kidding about having it stuck in your brain for an annoyingly long time. It took only Larry’s reference to it to bring the whole thing back word for word the way we chanted it, until my dad intervened. I always felt guilty after that. So now I’m reliving that event as well. Agh!

  4. Darrell says:

    All this was too gloomy for me so my favorite jump rope ditty was:

    Number Nine, by John Lennon

    . . I was never able to coordinate it all very well tho.

  5. Larry says:

    If you liked the YouTube video Darrel linked to, try this one from the same video artist:

    Moody Blues: The Voice

    My daughter Adrian probably remembers sitting on the couch when she was about four years old, headphones on her head, listening to a favorite Moody Blues album — was it “A Question of Balance”? She also liked Paul Simon’s Graceland album back when she was a wee sprout.

  6. Darrell says:

    Thanks for the link . . . I’ll check it when I come back . . . off to a lecture and exhibit on the post 1492 Ladino world and Turkey. I’ll give a report when I come back if the public demands it. This is the third attempt at starting the exhibit . . the weather has been uncooperative.

  7. Larry says:

    Tell us about it, Darrell!

  8. Darrell says:

    Back again. The lecture wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. It was mainly family recollections of the early 20th century in Istanbul and then in New York City. Also with language usages between Ladino and later Spanish.
    When I was in Izmir during 1969-70, I ran into a number of Ladino speakers. Basically they were speaking an archaic Spanish dialect at home, just as they’d done for 500 years. It all started when Ferdinand and Isabella decided to expell Muslems and especially Jews from Spain in 1492. The sultan of Turkey got wind of it and invited the Jews to Turkey. The sultan’s alleged coment was that even for a Christian as dumb as Ferdinand, this was a colossal mistake, as much of Spain’s expertise was being expelled (while the Spanish Crown confiscated the monitary and real estate wealth of the expellees) . . . “Let Ferdinand’s loss be my gain” the sultan said . . . and supposedly sent a flotilla of ships to pick the now-exiles up. This was the second great exile in Jewish history (in 1492), the first being the loss of Judaea in the first and 2nd centuries .
    The talk tonight emphasized the fate of the exiles who went east, but others went north out of Spain into France and the Low Countries, then on into the german states, eventually ending up in Poland and Russia.

  9. Larry says:

    Interesting, Darrell. I’d never heard of the Ladino language and curiosity led me here:


  10. Darrell says:

    I ran into the Ladino world by accident when I first went to Izmir, Turkey, in 1969. I have a lot of recollections of people trying to survive in a less than friendly atmosphere, still speaking their archaic Spanish that still used Moorish place names. Even was invited to family dinner one Friday evening.

    Heres a couple of renditions of a Ladino song that was used in Kingdom of Heaven . . . one by Natasha Atlas, the other by Rosa Negra:


  11. Darrell says:

    Oops, messed that up a bit; no Natasha, just Rosa . . and I think she my be singing in Portuguese.

  12. Darrell says:

    Try this:

    Or this for real ladino:

    Thank you for the Moody Blues . . a highly underrated group to say the least.

  13. Virginia says:

    Thanks for the music, guys. You picked two favorites. I’ll add one that isn’t quite as beautiful, but has an uplifting thought and would be better to turn a jump rope. Hope you like ELO http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZ-UD8em3iM&feature=related

  14. Darrell says:

    That’s right . . we’re still supposed to be skipping rope. Thank you for the song.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *