Saturday, September 2, 2017

Selected 19th & Early 20th Century Examples Of "Ring Around The Rosey" (with information about & examples of the possibly related singing game "Merry Ma Tansey")

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides excerpts from several online articles or online discussion threads that include selected 19th century and early 20th century examples of the children's rhyme "Ring Around The Rosey".

Although those excerpts include commentary debunking the widespread belief that "Ring Around The Rosey" refers to the Plague, the focus of this post isn't on what I believe is the "urban legend" about "Ring Around The Rosey" and the Plague. Instead, the focus of this post is on the text of these rhymes and their performance activities.

The Addendum to this post provides information about and a few examples of the old singing game "Meery Ma Tansey". This information/examples are included because of the text of some of these featured examples and because of a comment that "Merry Ma Tansey" ("Tansie") might be related to "Ring Around The Rosey".

The content of the this post is presented for folkloric, historical, cultural, and recreational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
This post is part of an ongoing pancocojams series on urban legends about children's rhymes. That series uses this definition of urban legends: "a modern story of obscure origin and with little or no supporting evidence that spreads spontaneously in varying forms and often has elements of humor, moralizing, or horror"

The urban legend that is noted in this post is that the "Ring Around The Rosey" rhyme and singing game have anything to do with the Plague.

Click the "urban legends about children's rhymes" tag for other pancocojams posts in this series.

These online excerpts are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only.

Multiple selected quotes from the same source are given in chronological order and are numbered in consecutive order.

This post isn't meant to be a comprehensive compilation of 19th century "Ring Around The Rosey" rhymes.

The "Real" Meaning of "Ring Around the Rosie"

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton
...:Sometimes, the plague referenced in the ["Ring Around The Rosey"] rhyme is said to be the Great Plague of London of 1665-6, the last major outbreak of plague in the English-speaking world. Once again, we have many firsthand accounts of this calamity--even more than in the earlier outbreak, since literacy was more widespread by the 17th.

From a purely historical standpoint, there were already difficulties in attributing the rhyme as far back as the 14th century. There are no references to this rhyme in contemporary literature, artwork, or the like that I have been able to discover. The same goes for the 17th century. If the rhyme is that old, it would be expected that someone would have mentioned it somewhere between the 14th century and the 19th; even if it were only a few words tossed off as an aside. Yet, no one does, despite the fact that antiquarians began collecting such material in the 18th century and publishing it. As Philip Hiscock, a folklorist associated with the Folklore and Language Archive at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, states, "English antiquarians have been bringing together, publishing, and discussing traditional rhymes, songs, and stories for over three hundred years. It does seem odd they might have missed this one."(2)

There are also problems with the interpretation itself. First, a red mark is not a sign of the plague; red marks are seen in a variety of other infectious diseases (rubella being perhaps the best known), but not in either variety (bubonic or pneumonic) of plague. Secondly, both explanations of the third line are problematic. Plague victims were not cremated--not in 1347-50, and not in 1665-6. Cremation is a relatively recent practice in Western Europe, even when large numbers of dead were involved. (3). The other interpretation, involving sneezing, is a problem because sneezing was associated only with the pneumonic version of the plague, which did not represent the majority of cases. (Pneumonic plague, while caused by the same bacterium as bubonic plague, is more virulent and attacks the respiratory system directly.)

So let us turn to the evolution of the rhyme itself. The first reported version of the rhyme is in William Wells Newell's Games and Songs of American Children , 1883. Wells dates it to 1790 in New Bedford, Mass., and it goes as follows:

Ring a ring a rosie
A bottle full of posie
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.(4)

Notice here in this earliest version (which is still more than 100 years after the last cited outbreak of the plague in England in 1665) how difficult it would be to interpret this as having anything to do with the plague.

The earliest published version is in Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose , (1881). It goes as follows:

Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Hush! hush! hush! hush!
We're all tumbled down. (5)
There are numerous other variants in the late 19th and early 20th century extant in collections of childrens' rhymes and songs. Here are two of them:

Ring-a-ring o' roses
A pocket full of posies,
One for Jack, and one for Jim,
and one for Little Moses
A-tischa! a-tischa! a-tischa! (6)
Ring, a ring o' roses,
A pocket full o' posies;
Up-stairs and down-stairs,
In my lady's chamber--
Husher! Husher! Cuckoo! (7)

Clearly, many of these variants could not possibly have anything to do with the Plague. They do seem to refer dancing games; Philip Hiscock, in fact, theorizes that such games might have been a way to get around Protestant bans on dancing in the late 18th and 19th centuries. (8) In fact, none of the early collections say anything about any connections with the Plague. So what's the rhyme really about? As the variations above show, this rhyme is likely no more than a bit of nonsense doggerel invented to go along with a game, and truly has no "deeper meaning." ...

It seems, therefore, that the plague explanation of "Ring around the Rosie" is a product of our own century, and was not the "original hidden meaning" of the rhyme. It is also interesting to note that I did not hear the Plague explanation until I was well into my twenties; I certainly never heard it as a child, and I have never heard it explained as a Plague reference by a child; but rather, it's always been related by other adults. Tantalizingly plausible as the explanation is, it cannot be backed up by credible evidence.


(6) Jackson, G.F. Shropshire Folk-Lore (1883), cited by Ian Munro's FAQ.
(7) Gomme, Alice The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1898), cited by Ian Munro's FAQ.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved."

From "Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason", July 24, 2014 by Stephen Winick
..."FitzGerald’s text [of "Ring Around The Rosey”] goes like this:

A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

FitzGerald states emphatically that this rhyme arose from the Great Plague, an outbreak of pneumonic plague that affected London in the year 1665:

Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses is all about the Great Plague; the apparent whimsy being a foil for one of London’s most atavistic dreads (thanks to the Black Death). The fatalism of the rhyme is brutal: the roses are a euphemism for deadly rashes, the posies a supposed preventative measure; the a-tishoos pertain to sneezing symptoms, and the implication of everyone falling down is, well, death.

This interpretation emerged in the mid-twentieth century, and has become widespread, but it has never been accepted by folklorists, for several reasons. First, like most folklore items, this rhyme exists in many versions and variants. This allows us to ask whether the specific images associated with the plague occur in all or even most versions. It turns out they don’t. Many versions have no words that sound like sneezes, and many versions don’t mention falling down. For example, Iona and Peter Opie give an 1883 version (in which “curchey” is dialect for “curtsey”):

A ring, a ring o’roses
A pocket full of posies
One for Jack and one for Jim and one for little Moses
A curchey in and a curchey out
And a curchey all together

Moreover, in many versions , everyone gets up again once they have fallen down, which hardly makes sense if falling down represents death.

“Posies,” or bouquets of flowers, are almost universal in the song. However, many versions do not make them portable but install them in in pots or bottles, which doesn’t fit well with the plague interpretation. William Wells Newell, writing in 1883, gave several versions, including:

Round the ring of roses
Pots full of posies
The one who stoops last
Shall tell whom she loves best

Ring around the rosie
Bottle full of posy
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie

On May 16, 1939, in Wiergate, Texas, John and Ruby Lomax collected an interesting version for the Library of Congress, from a group of African American schoolgirls. You can hear it in the player below. The words were as follows:

Ring around a Rosey
Pocketful o’ posies
Light bread, sweet bread, squat!
Guess who she told me, tralalalala
Mr. Red was her lover, tralalalala
If you love him, hug him!
If you hate him, stomp!
Ring Round A Rosey

Ring Round Rosey
AFC 1939/001: AFS 02656b01
Burkeville, Texas, 1939-05-16.

The above observations show that “Ring Around the Rosie” is a “singing-game” or a “play-party song,” both of which are names for children’s dance songs. Plague theorists say it’s still possible that the plague was the original meaning, and that children pressed the rhyme into service for their games and dances. But there are other reasons, too, not to believe the plague story. For example, this rhyme and dance are internationally distributed, and records turn up on the European continent before they do in England. The Opies give versions from Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, among other places. Meanwhile, there’s no evidence the rhyme existed in English until the late 19th Century. Newell, writing in 1883, asserted that the rhyme was known in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1790, but he gave no evidence, and none has come to light. After this unsubstantiated claim, the rhyme doesn’t turn up in English until 1881"...
The lines in the 1939 rhyme "Ring Around The Rosey" (Burkeville, Texas) that occur after the second iteration of "tralalalala" remind me of the 19th century African American children's song "Green Sally Up". That song became the bases on Moby's recording "Flowers".

Click for a pancocojams post about the rhyme "Green Sally Up".

From "Origins: Ring Around The Rosey's History??"

[Oancocojams Editor's Note: This online folk music discussion thread was started in 2002 and the last comment as of this date is from 2014. However, theoretically, this discussion thread is still open for public comments.]

Subject: RE: Origins: Ring Around The Rosey's History??
From: masato sakurai
Date: 05 Oct 04 - 01:50 AM

I've found this version in J.P. McCaskey, ed., Franklin Square Song Collection, No. 4 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1887, p. 101). The tune is a "Yankee Doodle" variant.

T:[Ring around a rosy]
A A B c|A2 E2|A A B c|A2 E2|
w:Ring a-round a ro-sy, Sit up-on a pos-y,
A A B c|(dc) (BA)|G E F G|A2 A2|]
w:All the girls in our_ town_ Vote for Un-cle Jo-sie.

Subject: RE: Origins: Ring Around The Rosey's History??
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 30 Oct 04 - 11:21 PM

In view of the constantly recurring speculations, it seems a good idea to post a variety of the versions, with dates. The earliest dated "Ring Around the Rosie" is ca. 1790 (and this reference can't be found now) as suggested in this rhyme from Massachusetts:

Ring a ring a rosie,
A bottle full of posie,
All the girls in our town,
Ring for little Josie.

Published 1883:
Round the ring of roses,
Pots full of posies,
The one who stoops last
Shall tell whom she loves best.

Also published 1883:
Ring around the rosie,
Squat among the posies,
Ring around the roses,
Pockets full of posies,
17 Jul 14
(this one still used in Georgia in the 1930s. "Last one squats will be old Josie" is the end of one from Texas. Also see the one from Switzerland)

1840s, acc. to W. W. Newell:
A ring, a ring, a raney
Buttermilk and tansy,
Flower here and flower there,
And all- squat!

The above all from W. W. Newell, Games and Songs of American Children, 1883, (1903), Dover reprint.

Now a few from the other side; from the Opies, "The Singing Game."
1880s, Lancashire:
A ring, a ring o'roses
A *pocket full o' posies- *or bottle
Atch chew! atch chew!

1881, Greenaway, Mother Goose:
Ring-a ring-a-roses,
A pocket full of posies;
Hush~ hush! hush! hush!
We're all tumbled down

Shropshire, 1883:
A ring, a ring o' roses,
A pocket full o' posies,
One for Jack and one for Jim
And one for Little Moses!
A curchey in, and a curchey out,
And a curchey all together.
(Children curtsey at end. See the Italian one)

ca. 1900, Italy:
Gira, gira, rosa,
Co la più: bela in mezo,
Gira un bel giardino,
Un altro pochetino;
Un salterelo,
Un altro de più belo;
Una riverenza,
Un'altra per penitenza;
Un baso a chi ti vol.
Ring a ring a roses
With the most beautiful in the middle;
Ring a pretty garden,
Another circle round,
A little skip,
Another even better,
A curtsy,
Another for penitence;
A kiss for the one you like.

1857, Switzerland:
Ring-a, ring-a, row,
The children go into the greenwood,
They dance around the rosebush
And all *squat down.

Above all from Iona and Peter Opis, 1985," pp. 219-227, "The Singing Game."

A simple little children's game, with its many variants, has picked up all sorts of baggage from speculation. The rhyme is lost under the load. Even the Opies couldn't resist and piled on their own supercargo-
"Thus in 'Ring a Ring o' Roses,' we have, or so it seems, a spray from the great Continental tradition of May games, that preserves the memory, however faintly, of the rose as the flower of Cupid, the wreath of roses with which Aphrodite crowned her hair."...

Subject: RE: Origins: Ring Around The Rosey's History??
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 25 Jan 05 - 11:37 PM

This happy little game could be related to "Merry-ma-tansie," the marriage game in Scotland- "a happy wedding song" as Lighter insists. One of the verses is-

Twice about and then we fall,
Then we fall, then we fall,
Twice about and then we fall,
Around the merry-ma-tansie.

An old variant in America-
A ring, a ring, a ransy,
Buttermilk and tansy,
Flower here and flower there,
And all- squat!

More verses, but I think they have appeared in Mudcat already.

EXCERPT #1: Jingo Ring (Merry-Ma-Tanzie, Around the Ring)

DESCRIPTION: "Here we go around the ring; Choose you one while we do sing; Choose the one that you love best, And she will come at your request." "Now you've got her, and I wish you much joy, You are my son and childish joy... Kiss her quick, and that will do."
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1825 (John Jamieson's _Scottish Dictionary, Supplement_, according to Opie-Game)
KEYWORDS: playparty courting nonballad
FOUND IN: US(Ap,NE,SE) Britain(Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (9 citations):
GreigDuncan8 1580, "The Merry Ma Tanzie" (4 texts, 2 tunes)
Greig #152, p. 2, "Jingar Ring" (1 text)
Lyle-Crawfurd2 200, "The Tansey" (1 text)
Fuson, p. 173, "Around the Ring" (1 text)
Opie-Game 27, "Merry-ma-tansie" (5 texts)
Newell, #170, "Marriage" (1 text, 1 tune)
BrownSchinhanV, p. 546, "Here We Go in a Ring" (1 short text, 1 tune)
Montgomerie-ScottishNR 65, "(Here we go round the jing-a-ring" (1 text)

ADDITIONAL: Robert Chambers, The Popular Rhymes of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1870 ("Digitized by Google")), pp. 131-135, "The Merry-Ma-Tanzie" (2 texts)
ST Fus173 (Full)
Roud #12970
cf. "Lipto" (lyrics)
A Guinea Gold Ring
NOTES: Lyle-Crawfurd2 200 seems to be the same game described by Chambers and Gomme1.369-373 (cf., Lyle-Crawfurd2 p. liii) but the "plot" is different: The "young Ladie" has a baby "belongs to Merrie man Tansey"; she wraps it in a dish towel and lays it on a nettle bush an dance a Merrie man Tansey."


Three times round, and then we fall, Around the merry-ma-tansy.
Choose your maidens all around, All around, &c.;
High gates till the bride comes in, The bride comes in, &c.
A golden pin to tell her name, To tell her name, &c.
(Mary Anderson) is her name, Is her name, &c.
Blindfold you all around, All around, &c.

A ring with one child in centre, who chooses one from the circle, at the end of third verse, after whispering the bride's name together outside the circle, they are admitted at " high gates," when all the girls hold up their hands in arches as they dance round. All players in the ring are then blindfolded, and have to catch the child in the centre. -Nairnshire (Rev. Dr. Gregor). Another version is

Here we go round by jingo-ring,
By jingo-ring, by jingo-ring, Here we go round by jingo-ring, And round by merry matansy. Twice about, and then we fall,
And then we fall, and then we fall. Twice about, and then we fall, And round by merry matansy.
-Fochabers (Rev. Dr. Gregor).

In another version from St. Andrews and Peterhead, with same words, the players all flop down, then rise again and dance round.
Another form of words is-
Here we go round by jingo-ring, Jingo-ring, jingo-ring. Here we go round by jingo-ring, In a cold and frosty morning."

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1 comment:

  1. After reading the 19th century and 20th century examples of "Ring Around The Rosey" that are featured in this pancocojams post, it occurred to me that in the United States the "we all tumble down", or "we all fall down" are still familiar for the "Ring Around The Rosey" singing game, but the "last one squat", "we all squat" and "one two three squat" endings are not familiar for that singing game or for any other contemporary children's singing game or rhyme. I don't recall reading any "contemporary" (post- 1960s) American singing game or rhyme that includes the action word "squat". That word seems to be most often used in the United States as an aerobic exercise, i.e. "doing squats" and "doing push-ups".

    Yet, it seems that there was a time when it was common for singing games to end with the statement "last one squat" or "one two, three, squat", or "we all squat", or "squat for Uncle Josie" (whoever "Uncle Josie was if no other name was substituted here).

    Maybe in "the olden days" those squat endings for rhymes/singing games were as common as the command "Freeze!" is (or used to be) for hand clap games in the United States. "Freeze!" means to stand still like a statue, and particularly to stand still in dramatic or silly poses. I remember this "Freeze!" ending command for hand clap games I played as a child in the 1950s. But, it appears to me that since maybe the 1990s if not before, the popularity of the ending command "Freeze" may have been replaced by those violent ending gestures such as trying to be the first one (in a partner hand clap routine) to poke your partner on the forehead while saying a word like "Shame" (as in the widely known "I Don't Want To Go To Mexico" hand clap games) or trying to be the first one to punch your partner in the stomach.

    I don't think those ending actions are an improvement over "we all squat" or "last one squat [loses the game]" or last one squat [has to do something that she doesn't want to do such as kiss a boy].

    I could continue by saying that these contemporary children's rhyme endings reflect the violence in our society, but violence in children's rhymes (in the United States and elsewhere) isn't something new. And I'm not sure that contemporary children's rhymes in the United States are more violent than this country's children's rhymes from the past.