There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

"There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Tie" (also known as "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" and "There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly") is a children's rhyme and nonsense song of a kind known as cumulative.

The song tells the nonsensical story of an old woman who swallows increasingly large animals, each to catch the previously swallowed animal, but dies after swallowing a horse. The humour of the song stems from the absurdity that the woman is able to inexplicably and impossibly swallow animals of preposterous sizes without dying, suggesting that she is both superhuman and immortal; however, the addition of a horse is finally enough to kill her. Her inability to survive after swallowing the horse is an event that abruptly and unexpectedly applies real-world logic to the song, directly contradicting her formerly established logic-defying animal-swallowing capability.

There are many variations of phrasing in the lyrics, especially for the description of swallowing each animal. The spider and fly are described in each verse, but the other animals are only described when they are introduced starting with the bird.[1] Three versions of the rhyme were collected in the journal Hoosier Folklore in December 1947,[2] beginning respectively "There was an old lady — she swallowed a fly", "Poor little old lady, she swallowed a fly" and "A little old lady swallowed a fly". All three list the progression from fly to spider, bird, cat, dog and cow, finishing with the horse, with variations to the rhymes for each animal.

The definitive version was written by Rose Bonne (lyrics) and Canadian/English folk artist Alan Mills and copyrighted in 1952. At that time it was entitled simply "I Know an Old Lady."[3] A widely distributed version of the song was released on Brunswick Records in 1953, where it was sung by Burl Ives. Ives' rendition appears on his album, Folk Songs, Dramatic and Humorous—which debuted in late summer, 1953.[4] The 1961 illustrated book by Rose Bonne also indicates that the lyrics are hers, whereas the music was composed by Alan Mills.[5][6][7]

Lyrics

The following is one form of the lyrics, that are representative of the nature of this cumulative lyric:

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly;

I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a bird;
How absurd to swallow a bird!

She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a cat;
Fancy that! She swallowed a cat!

She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady that swallowed a dog;
What a hog, to swallow a dog!

She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a goat;
She just open her throat to swallow a goat!

She swallowed the goat to catch the dog,
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow;
I don't know how she swallowed a cow!

She swallowed the cow to catch the goat,
She swallowed the goat to catch the dog,
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a horse;

...She's dead, of course![1]

Representative renditions

  • Pete Seeger released a version on the Birds Bugs and Little Fishes LP (Folkways Records FC7610) in 1955 [8]
  • Composer Alan Mills recorded a version for Scholastic Records released in 1956 on Animals, Vol.1 [9]
  • The song was used for an animated cartoon sung by Burl Ives. Ives's version included an extra verse, involving a pig, following that involving the goat and preceding that involving the cow.
  • The song's lyrics were used as the text of a children's book by Simms Taback. A video version of the song by the publisher was sung by Cyndi Lauper. Both these versions also feature the animals and the artist talking. A cow stands in the middle of one of the pages surrounded by flowers, a carton of milk, a Hershey milk chocolate bar, some different types of cheese, a bar of butter and containers of cream cheese and sour cream. So the famous moral is "never swallow a horse". The Simms Taback version does not feature the goat after the dog and skips straight to the verse about the cow being swallowed by the old lady.
  • The song and its title are the basis of a children's book that has been in print since the early 1970s, from illustrator Pam Adams.[7]
  • The song has been adapted into a stage musical written by Steven Lee and produced by The People's Theatre Company.[10]
  • A version of this song was recorded by San Francisco punk band, Flipper and released on a 7" single.
  • The song was performed by Judy Collins and Statler and Waldorf with shadow puppets, on a 1977 episode of The Muppet Show. This was parodied in one scene in the 2005 film The Brothers Grimm.
  • Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) said the first lyrics of the song after he learned of his condition in the 1986 version of The Fly.
  • The song appeared in an episode of Desperate Housewives in the season 5 finale.
  • In a PBS television concert Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too, Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary perform this song.[11]
  • In Disney/Pixar's A Bug's Life, a cricket mentions the first verse of this song at the bar.
  • In an Arthur episode entitled "Emily Swallows a Horse," the song is used as an analogy for the increasingly complex and incredible lies that the character must use to cover her original falsehood.
  • The lyrics about the bird catching the spider form part of the theme song for the popular children's show Round the Twist. [12]
  • In Mr. Holland's Opus, Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) is playing and singing the song to his wife and son.
  • The Bill Nye the Science Guy episode "Food Web" featured a segment called "Uncle Fran's Playhouse" which featured part of this song.
  • One of Russell Bates's rejected scripts for Star Trek: The Animated Series, "The Patient Parasites," when it was finally published in Star Trek: The New Voyages 2, included the song's two earliest verses, those involving the fly and the spider in that order, in the "tag," or "epilogue," of the story.
  • In The Kids in the Hall sketch "Needed Elsewhere", a coked-up Scott Thompson yells at a cat off-camera. When one of the guests replies that she thought he had a dog, he briefly recites a paraphrasing of the song.
  • Pete Seeger did a parody of the song as "I know an old lady who swallowed a lie" during a 1980 concert at the Sanders Theater in Boston. In the song, towards the very end, she coughs up the lie. (SOURCE: CD " Pete Seeger Singalong" 1981. Smithsonian Folkways Records)
  • On a Sesame Street episode, the lyrics of that song were changed to "perhaps she'll cry" in order to make the song tamer for children, with Telly singing that repeated refrain including the final line: "She cried, of course".
  • A derivative version by post-punk death rockers Death Valley High was included on the 2016 LP titled "CVLT AS FVK". Vocalist Reyka Osburn simulates a "classroom" full of monsters reciting and singing along. (SOURCE: CD "CVLT AS FVK" 2016 on MinusHEAD Records)


See also

References

  1. Rhymes.org Staff (2016-06-09). "There was an Old Lady nursery song lyrics". rhymes.org.uk. Retrieved 9 June 2016.
  2. "The Little Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly". Hoosier Folklore. 6 (4): 153–156. December 1947. JSTOR 27649913.
  3. Catalog of Copyright Entries, Third Series, Volume 6, Part 5B, No. 1, January–June, 1952 (US Copyright Office), p. 86. The submission date is given as March 28, 1952. The 1954 edition relists it, providing the same date and giving Alan Mills as a pseudonym for Albert Miller.
  4. Decca DL 5467, reviewed in Billboard, September 12, 1953, p. 36. The record label also indicates the Mills-Bonne credit.
  5. M.B.K. (1961-11-12). "Songs with Pictures [review of I Know an Old Lady, "words by Rose Bonne; music by Alan Mills; illustrated by Abner Graboff…"]" (children's book review). Chicago Sunday Tribune, Magazine of Books (Books for Children). No. Part 4, Section 2. Chicago, IL: Chicago Tribune. p. 34, col. 3. Retrieved 9 June 2016.
  6. Bonne, Rose (1961). I Know an Old Lady. Alan Mills, music; Abner Graboff, illustrations. Skokie, IL: Rand McNally.
  7. For a further example remaining in print, see Adams, Pam (1973). There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly. Classic books with holes. Swindon, UK: Child's Play (International). ISBN 0859530213. Retrieved 9 June 2016.
  8. "Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Fishes (Little and Big) - Smithsonian Folkways". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
  9. "Animals, Vol.1 - Smithsonian Folkways". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
  10. "There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly - The People's Theatre Company".
  11. Doug Bell (5 May 2018). "Peter, Paul & Mary - Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too (1992, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, N Y)" via YouTube.
  12. "Round The Twist - ClassicKidsTv.co.uk". www.classickidstv.co.uk.
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