Subversion rules in the playground.
You can’t beat the classics when it comes to playground rhymes. Few oral compositions have ever come near the purity of:
“Jingle bells, Batman smells,
Robin’s gone away.
Wonder Woman lost her bosom
On the motorway.”
First sighted in the 1980s, this combines transgressive disrespect for Christmas, homo-erotic yearning, gender confusion and a firm grounding in the reality of daily journeys, all wrapped up in a concise, hummable 15 words.
It’s not a uniquely New Zealand rhyme. As Janice Ackerly wrote in a piece on playground rhymes, originally published in 2002 and adapted on the folksong.org.nz website, New Zealand ditties can often be traced back to British or other originals. This is true even of something so firmly based in New Zealand lived experience as:
“Roll, roll, roll your dope,
Scrunch it at the end.
Now pass it to your friend.”
Sung, of course, to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”.
Parodies of well-known tunes have always been popular with children – especially catchy TV themes such as that for The Beverly Hillbillies, which was used for the grim humour of:
“There once was a man and his name was Tower.
He went down town to join Black Power.
There once was a man and his name was Bob.
He went down town to join Mongrel Mob.
Along came Tower with his 303
And he blew those boys right out of Beverly (Hills, that is).”
Local television spiced up the national anthem when it wormed its way into playground activities with:
“God of Nations, smell my feet,
In the bonds of Shortland Street.
Hear our voices, tweet, tweet, tweet.
God defend our toilet seat.”
With their subversion of words from traditional game rhymes such as “Oranges and Lemons”, these verses allowed children to construct an imaginative world that reflected both their own surroundings and their anxieties about what they encountered there – all made bearable in the form of play.
Playground rhymes also vary from region to region, despite the homogeneity reputedly encouraged by mass and social media. A study conducted at the turn of the century by the Royal Society found the following variations in one familiar rhyme throughout New Zealand: “In the northern area, ‘First the worst, second the best’ is most likely to be followed by ‘Third the golden eagle’. An alternative used largely by North Islanders is ‘Third the nerd’. Children in the central and southern regions… are more likely to say ‘Third the golden princess’.”
When natives of different regions meet and play together, disputes over the “correct” version of “First the Worst” can grow heated.
Laurie and Winifred Bauer made an exhaustive study of “Skipping Games and Rhymes” used in New Zealand. Most were international in content, but “Captain Cook” has local resonance:
“Captain Cook lost one arm. [Put one hand behind back.]
Captain Cook lost the other arm. [Put other hand behind back.]
Captain Cook lost one eye. [Shut one eye.]
Captain Cook lost the other eye. [Shut other eye.]
Captain Cook lost one leg. [Jump on one leg.]
Captain Cook lost the other leg. [Jump out of rope.]
As well as its indigenous references, of course, it also has a flagrant disregard for the facts of Cook’s biography. Playground rhymes were never bound by such pedestrian constraints as accuracy or taste.
This was published in the May 2018 issue of North & South.