The comparative study of children’s rhymes and folklore - Children’s rhymes and folklore - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


21. Children’s rhymes and folklore


Andy Arleo


The comparative study of children’s rhymes and folklore


Researchers have long recognised that children’s rhymes and folklore, like folk songs and folk tales, spread from culture to culture, hopping over geographical and linguistic barriers. Commenting on a courtship game called ‘Knights of Spain’, the nineteenth-century American folklorist William Wells Newell noted that this game was not ‘the exclusive property of English-speaking peoples, but current under a score of forms throughout Europe - from Latin France, Italy, and Spain, to Scandinavian Iceland, from the Finns of the Baltic coast to the Slavs of Moravia’ (Newell 1883/1963: 39). In 1888 Newell’s contemporary, Henry C. Bolton, published a collection of 877 counting-out rhymes from nineteen languages or dialects, including Arabic, Basque, Marathi and Penobscot as well as many Indo-European languages. The work of Iona and Peter Opie, although it focuses primarily on British children’s folklore, also contains extensive annotations documenting different versions of rhymes and games in other languages. For instance, the well-known children’s incantation ‘Ladybird, Ladybird, Fly Away Home’ has close counterparts in France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden (Opie and Opie 1951: 263).

A recent study of the handclapping game known in English as ‘When Susie Was a Baby’ illustrates how children’s folklore continues to spread from culture to culture (Arleo 2001a). Variants of this game have been collected in Australia, Britain, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, South Africa, Spain and the United States. The narrative, which can be traced back to the earlier singing game ‘When I Was a Lady’ (Opie and Opie 1985: 458), usually portrays a named central female character (for example, Susie, Lucy, Fanny, Delphine, Sophie) as she goes through stages of life, from infancy to death and beyond. A French version, recorded in 1985 at a recreation centre in Saint-Nazaire, France, presents eight life stages:




Quand Delphine etait un bebe,

Un bebe, un bebe,

Quand Delphine etait un bebe,

Elle faisait comme ca:

Spoken: ‘areu’.


[When Delphine was a baby,

A baby, a baby,

When Delphine was a baby,

She used to do this:


Quand Delphine etait une p’tite fille ...

Says ‘Un, deux, trois.’

When Delphine was a little girl ...

‘One, two, three.’


Quand Delphine etait une jeune fille ...

Says ‘Allo, cheri.’

Mimes holding receiver.

When Delphine was a young girl ...

‘Hello, dear.’


Quand Delphine etait une maman ...

Says ‘Chh, bebe dort.’

Index in front of mouth and then mimes rocking baby to sleep.

When Delphine was a mummy ...

‘Shh, baby’s sleeping.’


Quand Delphine etait une grand-mere ...

Says ‘Ouille, mes reins.’

Right hand on lower back, bends over in pain.

When Delphine was a grandmother

‘Ouch, my back.’


Quand Delphine etait un squelette ...

Says ‘Oououou.’

When Delphine was a skeleton ...



Quand Delphine etait une poussiere ...

Says ‘Balaie-moi.’

Mimes sweeping.

When Delphine was a dust speck .

‘Sweep me.’


Quand Delphine etait invisible ...

Performers stop suddenly on the last syllable.

When Delphine was invisible .]


An Australian version of the same handclapping game, recorded in Melbourne in 1984, presents seven life stages: baby, schoolgirl, teenager, mother, teacher, grandmother and skeleton. As in the French version, each verse is followed by mimed actions: the teacher, for example, shakes her index finger in rhythm as if reprimanding a pupil. In most versions the verses are sung and accompanied by a simple repeated handclapping pattern. The basic story is found in versions collected in other cultures, with occasional narrative twists. Several British and American versions, for instance, have a pregnancy stage, either before or after marriage. A Spanish version, which begins directly in the courtship stage, deals with marital conflict and separation; an embedded sub-narrative explains that the central character’s boyfriend no longer loves her and stole her necklace. There is also considerable variation in the stages involving death, with some versions evoking religious themes like heaven, hell and resurrection. The ‘Susie saga’ no doubt provides insight into how notions like time, growth and death are conceptualised by the child: Susie moves from the initial familiar life stages (for example, ‘schoolgirl’) to uncharted territory, such as motherhood, and finally to the unknowable stages of death and beyond. With its endearing mixture of realism and fantasy, this miniature musical comedy, in which the player is story-teller, actor, singer and dancer, ‘simultaneously rehearses and mocks the conventional categories of time and growth’ (Arleo 2001a: 129). Susie’s success around the world lies in the fun of acting out a fanciful, facetious and tragic-comic narrative ‘that deals lightheartedly with fundamental and universal issues like growing up, falling in (and out of) love, sexuality, motherhood, ageing and death. Such themes no doubt strike a resonant chord in schoolgirls at a crucial transitional period of their life, as they leave elementary school and childhood’ (Arleo 2001a: 130).