Friday, October 11, 2013

Behind the Music: The Itsy Bitsy Spider - The Dark Side of the Nursery

Ah, The Itsy Bitsy Spider! What a cute little whimsical rhyme! It teaches youngsters about perseverance and the cycle of life. It even has a fun finger-play to go along with it. Such an innocent game!

Or so we thought.

Turns out, The Itsy Bitsy Spider is a dark, disturbing metaphor for the deadly disease of alcoholism.

Take a look.

The Itsy Bitsy Spider crawled up the water spout.
The man started drinking. Water is actually wine, or more likely, beer.

Down came the rain, and washed the spider out.
The beer "rained" down his throat and "washed him out". In other words, he got drunk and passed out.

Out came the sun, and dried up all the rain,
The next morning, the sun came out and he "dried up", he got sober.

And the Itsy Bitsy Spider went up the spout again.
The alcoholic, as if forgetting his tribulations from the previous day, goes back to the drink.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. Think about the awful origins of other nursery rhymes: Ring Around the Rosie was based on the Black Plague; Rock a Bye Baby was a metaphor for the Glorious Revolution; London Bridge is Falling Down is about child sacrifice; and the list goes on.

This particular rhyme has its origins in the era right after the Civil War.  Railroads were becoming common and a popular mode of transportation, especially among the poor, was freight-hopping. This was (is) very dangerous, and it became more dangerous when alcohol was involved, which it often was. To discourage this behavior, parents taught their youngsters this rhyme and the accompanying finger-play. The original song, however, was much more direct with its message. Here are the lyrics:

The Tipsy Dipsy Hobo drinks from the lager spout

Here comes the train it knocks the hobo out

Out comes a man to pick up all the brains 

But a Tipsy Dipsy Hobo drinks from the spout again.

As I said, this was a little more direct in its message. But let's be honest: it just doesn't have the same ring to it. The song only took off in mainstream society when the lyrics were changed during the Great Depression, a time when freight-hopping (and alcoholism) was increasingly common.

So next time you choose a song for that fun sing-along with your young'uns, consider the origins of those silly little rhymes, and decide whether little Cindy and Jamal really need such a hard life lesson at 5 years old.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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