There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

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The phrase and title There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly—alternatively, I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, or There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly, or I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly—is a children's rhyme and song of a kind known as cumulative. The song tells the story of an old woman who swallowed increasingly large animals, each to catch the previously swallowed animal. 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.[1] The absurdity stems from the increasingly improbable solutions that only worsen the initial problem and are more likely to cause the woman's death: the logic of swallowing of even more animals of preposterous sizes without dying, contrasted with the expected, matter-of-fact recounting of her death from swallowing an animal larger than herself, when in fact the swallowing of any animal as a solution was absurd. This song for children appeals to their initial logic that a fly can be swallowed by an old lady. A spider would also be seen as logical and physically possible. As you get to the bird, it slowly becomes clear for the child that it's part of an imaginary scenario leading to a whole horse being swallowed. The last sentence brings the child back to a rational understanding that the old lady is in fact dead of course as physically this is impossible making place for children's amusement and laughter.

The song was written by Rose Bonne (lyrics) and Alan Mills and copyrighted in 1952. At that time it was entitled simply "I Know an Old Lady."[2] 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.[3] The 1961 illustrated book by Rose Bonne also indicates that the lyrics are hers, whereas the music was composed by Alan Mills.[4][5][non-primary source needed][6][citation needed]

Lyrics[edit]

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 wiggled 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,
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 to swallow a cat!

She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
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,
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 opened her throat and swallowed 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,
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,
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]

In some versions, "perhaps she'll die" is replaced with "don't ask me why." Also, "she died of course" is replaced with "of course, of course, she swallowed a horse," leading to yet another cumulative verse that ends the tale.[citation needed]

Representative renditions[edit]

Pete Seeger did a parody of the song as "I know an old lady who swallowed a lie" at a concert at the Sanders Theater in Boston, Ma in 1980. 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 more tamer for children with Telly singing that repeated refrain including the final line: "She Cried Of Course".


See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Rhymes.org Staff (2016-06-09). "There was an Old Lady nursery song lyrics". rhymes.org.uk. Retrieved 9 June 2016. 
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Decca DL 5467, reviewed in Billboard, September 12, 1953, p. 36. The record label also indicates the Mills-Bonne credit.
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Bonne, Rose (1961). I Know an Old Lady. Alan Mills, music; Abner Graboff, illustrations. Skokie, IL: Rand McNally. 
  6. ^ a b 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. 
  7. ^ http://www.classickidstv.co.uk/wiki/Round_The_Twist

External links[edit]