Ring a Ring o’ Roses

My previous post about “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” got me thinking about this scene from The Goonies (1985). The key part of the clip starts at about 1:08:

Francis Fratelli: Get the rope here. Slothy, Slothy, jump rope Slothy.

Jake Fratelli: What do you mean jump rope?

Francis Fratelli, Jake Fratelli: Jump rope! Jump rope.

[singing]

Francis Fratelli, Jake Fratelli: Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies…

The same children’s rhyme also shows up (sans song) in The Wizard of Oz (1939) (at about 1:47 in this clip): “Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of spears!”

Like “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, if you grew up in the English-speaking world, you are probably familiar with “Ring Around the Rosie”. The version I learned goes:

Ring around the rosie,
Pocket full of posies,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down.

…followed by everyone in the room falling on their rumps. (That was hi-lairious to me at a certain young age.)

I remember watching an episode of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” (with Jack Palance!) sometime in the mid-1980’s, and learning that this seemingly innocent children’s rhyme was apparently some sort of code for the horrors of the bubonic plague. “Rosie” referred to the boils, the posies referred to flowers placed on coffins, falling down referred to death… you know, just exactly the dark, fascinating stuff that sticks in a nerdy kid’s mind.

I remember that episode after all these years.

Too bad it’s bullshit.

Snopes has an amazingly good analysis of why “Ring Around the Rosie” isn’t actually code for the bubonic plague. The biggest key is that the rhyme did not first appear in print until 1881, which is a really long time (read: about five centuries) after the bubonic plague scourged Europe. Printed reference to the bubonic plague interpretation, in turn, first showed up James Leasor’s The Plague and the Fire in 1961. If the rhyme really were about the Black Death, you’d think someone would have written such a history down a long time before 1961.

Also, the first printed “Ring Around the Rosie”, published by Kate Greenaway in 1881 in “Mother Goose, or The Old Nursery Rhymes” is a bit different from what I learned:

Ring-a-ring-a-roses,
A pocket full of posies;
Hush! Husk! Hush I hush!
We’re all tumbled down.

In fact, variants of the rhyme abound. Wikipedia notes that, “a novel of 1855, The Old Homestead by Ann S. Stephens, describes children playing ‘Ring, ring a rosy’ in New York.” American folklorist William Wells Newell also reported many variants of the rhyme, including one that was known in New Bedford, Massachusetts around 1790:

Ring a ring a Rosie,
A bottle full of posie,
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.

In fact, the Wikipedia article lists a half-dozen variants of the rhyme, including a possible German version from 1796:

Ringelringelreihen,
Wir sind der Kinder dreien,
sitzen unter’m Hollerbusch
Und machen alle Huschhuschhusch!

Loosely translated: “Ringed, ringed row. We are three of the children, sitting under an elder bush. We all call: Hush, hush, hush! Sit down.”

Less is known about the melody that goes with the rhyme. The version I learned as a kid in 1970’s middle America is pretty close to what is heard in this video, but apparently the melody has transformed vastly over the years and countries.

RingARingORoses1898

Musical variations of “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” by Alice Gomme, 1898. Graphic via Wikipedia.

The sheet music you see above, dated 1898, shows regional variations in the tune… and they sound pretty different from what I’d learned.

Marlborough

Yorkshire

Sporle 1

Sporle 2

(Sound files recorded from MIDIs from the Wikimedia Commons.)

So, it looks like “Ring a Ring o Roses” has a long history… but not one that involves the death of 30% – 60% of the population of Europe.

That history does, however, somehow include an apparently terrible horror movie.

Where have you heard this tune or rhyme recently?

2 comments

  1. mandydax says:

    I think the tune that we’re familiar with is a common taunting sing-song melody as well. Like “Nana nana boo-boo, stick your head in doo-doo.”

    I wonder about the “Shave and a haircut two bits” thing. I’ve seen it around from Looney Tunes to a recent episode of Big Bang Theory. I have no idea where its origins lie.

Leave a Reply