Burma-Shave And Other Rhyming Things

Irene Adler (whose previous names include Sjenka and Skuggi and Elphaba) brought in a mouse couple of nights ago. She was under the table thoughtfully hunched over her victim when we found her. As soon as Mr Č said “Kitty” (in italics), she picked it up in her mouth and ran outside, looking appropriately guilty. She hasn’t brought anything in since.

I’m doing research into folk traditions for my novel, so when I heard someone saying part of one on the street the other day it was tempting to make a brief detour in that direction. It had just started raining unexpectedly, and a woman began singing “It’s raining, it’s pouring…” to her granddaughter, but didn’t finish it, and I automatically completed it in my head. 

It’s raining, it’s pouring

The old man is snoring

He bumped his head and went to bed

And didn’t get up in the morning.

Hang on. Does that mean he got a head injury and died? As a child I always assumed he was just tired. 

It’s been said before: nursery rhymes can be deliciously horrible, providing spine-achingly vivid glimpses into specific eras and their accompanying problems (disease, child abuse, domestic abuse, starvation, animal cruelty…). “Ring around the Rosie” or “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” has been claimed to be about the Black Death or the later Great Plague: in a time when people believed smells transmitted disease (not entirely illogical in an era before we understood germs), the supposedly plague-preventing “posies” were scented parcels of dried herbs and spices carried around for protection.  The word “Rosie”, 20th-century folklorists claimed, referred to the red rash that was one of the Plague’s symptoms. But later scholarship (and comparisons with the rhyme in other languages) have discredited this theory. Nevertheless, pleasingly grim. 

What about “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring”? The next line should probably be “this poem is boring”. It seems I remembered it incorrectly: the more accurate version is “he couldn’t get up in the morning”, not “he didn’t” – so presumably the man didn’t actually die. And it only dates from about 1912. Ho-hum. 

Having promised you horrifying poetry, I couldn’t just give you tame examples, so here’s a choice offering from around 1790.

I married a wife on Sunday,

She began to scold on Monday,

Bad was she on Tuesday,

Middling was she on Wednesday,

Worse she was on Thursday,

Dead was she on Friday,

Glad was I on Saturday night,

To bury my wife on Sunday.

— From Tom Tit’s Song Book

And for those of you who can’t stand crying babies (with apologies to new parents), a gem from the Napoleonic Wars: 

Baby, baby, naughty baby,

Hush, you squalling thing, I say.

Peace this moment, peace, or maybe

Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he’s a giant,

Tall and black as Rouen steeple,

And he breakfasts, dines, rely on’t,

Every day on naughty people.

Baby, baby, if he hears you

As he gallops past the house,

Limb from limb at once he’ll tear you,

Just as pussy tears a mouse.

And he’ll beat you, beat you, beat you,

And he’ll beat you into pap,

And he’ll eat you, eat you, eat you,

Every morsel snap, snap, snap.

— From an early Mother Goose lullaby

(I found both of the above at http://bookdirtblog.blogspot.co.uk/)

Rhythmic and jaunty, no? We need more of this sort of thing, though possibly without the infanticide. Unfortunately we have this instead (seen last week in Baker Street tube station). The second line is so painfully awkward. I died a little when I read it, trying over and over to make it scan in my head. And there are so many, so much worse than this, all over London. Could they have not hired some starving but rhythmically capable poet to do the material for this campaign? 

Nothing like the old Burma-Shave ads, is it? Burma-Shave, if you’re not yet familiar with its delights, was a mid-century brand of shaving cream sold in America. Their great gimmick was a series of mildly witty one-line signs placed at intervals along U.S. highways in the mid-20th century. Each sign was just a single line of text, so you didn’t get too distracted from your driving (this was good, because you probably weren’t wearing a seatbelt anyway). 

Some of the jingles were wickedly funny. On the wondrous burma-shave.org, they have the complete collection – spanning the years 1927-1963 (you can thank me later). Here’s an example: 

He lit a match

To check gas tank

That’s why 

They call him 

Skinless Frank


Can you imagine anything more delightful than that slow reveal, a hundred yards or should between each sign, leading to the irreverent punchline? Some of the jingles are pretty lame, but the good ones make up for it, and the format is perfect, and must have ensured that all those drivers remembered the brand forever. 

Here’s another, because it’s Saturday, and why not? This one’s for my Dad, who first told me about the Burna-Shave poems (and explained targeted advertising to me):

Our fortune is

Your shaven face 

It’s our best

Advertising space 


I hope that this very serious message has given you lots to think about. Please, write more doggerel, everyone! And have a good weekend! 

One thought on “Burma-Shave And Other Rhyming Things

  1. You know what my favorite Burma Shave ditty is? “Ben met Anna/Made a hit/Neglected beard/Ben-Anna split/BURMA SHAVE.”

    Who were these unsung poetic geniuses, eh? I hope they made a mint.

    Liked by 1 person

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