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“Ring Around the Rosie” and the Plague, on the Folklife Today Podcast

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Episode Ten of the Folklife Today Podcast is ready for listening! Find it at this page on the Library’s website, or on iTunes, or with your usual podcatcher.

Two girls sit at a table outside speaking into microphones as they are recorded by a man wearing headphones.
AFC audio engineer Jonathan Gold records two young singers performing “Ring Around the Rosie” in the playground of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Congress Heights, Washington, D.C. Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Photo by Stephen Winick

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In this episode, John Fenn and I discuss children’s songs, and in particular “Ring Around the Rosie.” In the course of the show, we play versions of children’s songs recorded in the field in 1939 and in 2019–that’s our own John Gold recording two singers above!

We talk about the story that the origin of “Ring Around the Rosie” is related to plague symptoms in English history. We conclude that the plague story is folklore, and that specifically it is “metafolklore,” meaning folklore about folklore. We also conclude that it’s probably not true. (Sorry, everyone!)

Nevertheless, the plague story tells us interesting things about the way folklore is told, spread, and used by various kinds of people, including children.

Of course, the podcast episode was based on one of our most popular blog posts, “Ring Around the Rosie”: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason, which is at this link.  In that blog post you’ll find full versions of the audio of some of the children’s songs.  We also included these two:

“Mary was a Redbird” by Henry Truvillion:

“Go Tell Aunt Tabby” by Corine Jackson and Hasel Futch:

And we mentioned more online versions of “Go Tell Aunt Tabby” with different names for the aunts.  Find them all at this link!

African American children holding hands and dancing in a circle.
Children playing “Ring Around the Rosie” in Chicago, Illinois, April, 1941. Photo by Edwin Rosskam. Prints and Photographs Division. //

The rest of the audio in the podcast was either recorded or digitized from archival recordings specially for the podcast, so it remains exclusive to that format for now.

In the podcast, we also interview Carolyn Bennett, the Library of Congress Teacher-in-Residence.  That audio is also exclusive to the podcast for the moment, but Carolyn is so eloquent on the value of folklore that I thought I’d present a quotation from her here:

So the true value of these songs is in how they connect us to the viewpoints of people from the past, and often people who have otherwise disappeared from history. And we often don’t know their names but this one thing remains, and we can bring our students into that tradition by singing and participating in these songs games with them. And learning these songs can often open students’ eyes to the voices that are present in their own community, and be more open to learning from those voices. So as I thought about the plague myth, I realized that it revealed something about how I view folk music as a whole: folksongs are often about the smallness of life, and if they’re about a tragedy it tends to be a personal one. So this is an important reminder for me as an educator: yes, it’s my job to expand students’ minds, so they’re ready to wrap their minds around monstrously big ideas. But it’s also my job to shrink the world so it’s small enough to relate to my students. That idea is one of the reasons why I love folk traditions so much. They remind me that everyday life is worth making art about. They don’t focus on the most famous or most disastrous moments in history, they’re just about the daily acts of living life. And if I venture to guess, I bet the origin of “Ring Around the Rosie” was so unremarkable that no one has bothered to remember it or pass it down, so most likely we’ll never know for sure. And if that feels like a letdown to me, if I long for that sensational mythic narrative, then maybe I’m missing the point of what makes folk traditions beautiful.

Hear more of Carolyn, and more about Children’s songs, in the Folklife Today podcast!

Comments (5)

  1. Another wonderful episode! I seem to recall a ca. 1960 British collection of nursery rhymes for the nuclear age which included “Ring around a neutron, a pocket full of positrons; a-fission, a-fission, we all fall down.”

    • Thanks, Joe! The “fission” makes sense as an adaptation of the typically British “a-tishoo” line!

  2. It has always ben “Ring Around the Roses” for my 70 years being English.

    • Thank you, Ken! “Ring Around the Roses,” as well as “Ring-a-ring-a-roses” and “Ring Around the Rosie” have all been popular in England. “Rosie” was an old word for rosebush, from the French “rosier,” so in that variant the child in the center represented a rose bush. But as the blog and podcast make clear, there are many variants and many interpretations. If you’d care to comment with the full text as you remember it, and whether you knew of any story to explain the rhyme, it would be a valuable addition to the comments as well!

  3. I live next to a school and the sounds from the playground sound so different to me than they did in my childhood. Have you ever compared playground sounds from the different decades; with the stimulus of war, peacetime, prosperity, depression? Might be very interesting. Today’s children screem like the victims in gunfights.

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