It was Peter Pumpkin Eater who tipped me off. Nursery rhymes are not politically correct, and they run the gamut of violent, mean and morbid.
I noticed Peter on one of my 2-year-old son's stacking blocks. I'd heard "Peter, Peter, Pumkin Eater" a hundred times, but I hadn't listened to it within the context of 2007.
First, Peter's wife kept running away (he couldn't keep her). But instead of buying flowers or getting a marriage counselor, Peter confines his wife to a pumpkin shell, "where he kept her very well." I suppose the use of the word "well" here is subject to interpretation. My wife, for instance, wouldn't find a pumpkin-shell cage particularly endearing. Likewise by society's standards, methinks Peter would be considered a criminal.
And what about Georgie Porgie and Wee Willie Winkie? Today, these guys would get the cops called on them. Georgie sounds like he falls somewhere between a debaucher and a date rapist (kissed the girls and made them cry). Crying is not an endorsement. What part of "crying" does Georgie not understand? On another note, I've yet to understand what role the puddin' and pie play in his sordid activities.
And Wee Willie Winkie. Let's just say these days he'd be required to register with the local PD wherever he moves. He runs through the town in his nightgown rapping at windows. Maybe Merv would be a more fitting name. And whilst we're talking about law straddlers, let's investigate the Old Woman in the Shoe. Here's a sweet rhyme for the toddlers.
Nothing against aging mothers, but how old is this woman and why does she have so many children that she knows not what to do (welfare mother)?
She gave them some broth without any bread (starvation) and whipped them all soundly (child abuse) and put them to bed. Does anybody know the DCFS hotline number?
In researching for this column, I found some nursery rhymes that escaped my childhood. It's not difficult to understand why.
Take "Taffy Was A Welshman," for example. I'd never heard of Taffy, but he evidently was not the toast of the town.
"Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief; Taffy came to my house And stole a piece of beef.
"I went to Taffy's house, Taffy was not home; Taffy came to my house And stole a mutton bone.
"I went to Taffy's house, Taffy was not in; Taffy came to my house And stole a silver pin.
"I went to Taffy's house, Taffy was in bed; I took up a poker And threw it at his head."
OK. First, that could put an eye out. Second, what a nice character for kids to emulate. Sure, there's a pattern of burglary, but it's nothing a good poker to the head won't cure. And, an important lesson for the kids, if you are going to spear someone with a poker, best to get them in their sleep.
Some rhymes may be absent the obligatory criminal, but they are disconcerting nonetheless.
Baking live blackbirds in a pie today would draw some complaints from PETA. And, at the end of this little ditty, a bird pecks off the maid's nose. And we're worried about TV violence.
Or, how about a mean-spirited rhyme such as "The Old Grey Mare."
It's like saying, "Hey, kids, let's make fun of the aged."
And while saying "the Old Grey Mare ain't what she used to be" is heartless enough, repeating it half a dozen times teaches kids how to twist the knife.
And finally, how about this "Grapes of Wrathish" rhyme about a dead goose?
"Go tell aunt Rhody the old grey goose is dead,
"Grandpa found her dying in the millpond on her head,
"The gander won't eat now, gander won't eat now, because his wife is dead,
"Let's pray for the babies, pray for the babies, because their mama's dead,
"Somebody go tell aunt Rhody, go tell aunt Rhody the old grey goose is dead."
OK, I'm bawling. Forget about Old Yeller, this dead goose is leaving behind motherless goslings.
One thing is for sure, these rhymes are not Disney ready. In fact, I found one Web site where people submit their own alternate, "happy" versions of "The Old Woman in the Shoe."
"There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
"She was a kindhearted mom who knew exactly what to do.
"She raised all her children with patience and love.
"Never once did she give them a spank, shake or shove."
And this is why you don't see great nursery rhymes written today. We're afraid to bash Taffy with a poker or kill off the old grey goose. Sure, Peter Pumkin Eater has his faults, but boring he is not.
Tom Martin is editor of The Register-Mail. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.