Wednesday, August 09, 2023

WACKY WEDNESDAY: Keep Popping Your Weasel

 

Pop? Goes me?

Back when I was a "musician," in the early 1980s, I used to do this schtick between songs. I'd warn the audience about the "secret drug lyrics" in the beloved children's song -- you guessed it -- "Pop! Goes the Weasel."

In a phony stern voice, in which I tried to sound like a weird cross between Jack Webb, Paul Harvey and Sonny Bono (from that weird anti-marijuana movie they made us watch at Santa Fe Mid High -- I'd recite the lyrics that threatened our children.

"Around around the mulberry bush" I'd say, usually using air quotes for those last two words.

"The monkey, meaning the monkey on your back, chased The Weasel, who apparently is some sort of drug dealer or pimp,

"The monkey thought it all was good fun"  Again, dripping with sarcasm.

Then I'd jab an imaginary hypodermic into my left arm.

"Pop goes the weasel," I'd say, half singing the line.

But wait, there's more!

"A penny for a spool of thread," I'd say,  again with the air quotes, as if I'm explaining drug lingo. Then my voice would turn ominous: "A penny for a needle,

"That's the way the money goes ..."

Then again the fake jab"

"Pop goes the weasel," with my sing-song voice drifting off as if from some dope stupor.

Yep, it all was good fun. Fortunately there are no known recordings of me doing that.

"Pop! Goes the Weasel," probably my favorite song with an exclamation point in the title, has a long history, documented in a 2022 article in American Songwriter by Jake Uitti.

1937 sheet music
Pop! Goes the Weasel” is a traditional English-language nursery rhyme and singing game. It’s become so popular and stood the test of time when it comes to the enjoyment of young children, that the melody is often used in Jack-in-the-box toys to this day.

While there are many different versions of the rhyme today, in England, where the song originated, most understand the basic verse to be:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! Goes the weasel.

Tuppenny rice? Treacle? Them Brits sure have some weird food. (Uitti explained, "Tuppenny rice is cheap starch and treacle is a cheap sweetener. Doesn't make it sound any less disgusting.)

In many early versions the "mulberry bush" was a "cobbler's bench." And, instead of the "penny for a spool of thread" part, some versions have this refrain:

Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! Goes the weasel.

The Eagle Tavern supposedly was a swinging joint in London that's still around today. The webpage for The Eagle at the Know Your London site even includes an interpretation of the lyrics:

One explanation is that the word ‘weasel’ was slang for a tailor’s iron and the word ‘pop’ was slang for pawning goods. The lyrics basically allude to pawning items in order to gain money for alcohol and loose-living. They date from the 1850s. Another explanation claims that ‘weasel’ refers to a purse made of weasel-skin, which opened and closed with a snap or ‘pop’. The ‘popping of the weasel’ in the song, therefore, refers to the opening of the purse, and consequent spending of money. 

That's kind of like my old drug dealer interpretation.

In 1852 there was a dance craze in England. They didn't yet know the Twist or the Funky Chicken, but all the cool Brits were doing the "Pop! Goes the Weasel." 

In a Library of Congress Performing Arts Blog blog post in 2016, Sharon McKinley wrote of sheet music from 1856 she had found. "What I found amusing was that it had exhaustive dance directions printed on the last page," McKinley wrote.

She also talks about earlier sheet music from 1853, which also had dance instructions and said "the dance has been `lately introduced at Her Majesty’s and Nobilities balls' in England ..."

Again from McKinley:

By the time the rhyme and tune arrived on [American] shores, I’m sure the origin of the text had already been lost. The words developed in various ways here, as they did back in England. From an English nonsense rhyme with any number of verses, it turned into an American blackface minstrel song with equally nonsensical verses. We own a few different arrangements of this version. Charley Twiggs’s 1855 song includes what seem to be the “standard” minstrel show verses, with the addition of a few more verses with topical political overtones.

Uitti's article lists several versions of the lyrics. I like these he found in autobiographical novel by Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical Pioneer Girl, which Wilder wrote for her daughter in 1930.

All around the cobbler’s bench,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The preacher kissed the cobbler’s wife—
Pop! goes the weasel!

Early recordings are hard to find. Here's an instrumental version by British-born, French-named American violinist Charles D'Almaine. The usually reliable Discogs dates the record to 1904, though whoever posted it on Archives.org says it's from 1909. D'Almaine's version includes some nice Irish reels.

Naturally The Three Stooges were fans of the song. In their 1934 short Punch Drunks,  Curley goes wild -- and apparently gets supernatural strength -- every time he hears the song. Here's the climax of that exciting Stooge adventure.


Bill Haley & The Comets in 1952 did a rock 'n' roll version of a Weasel variant called "Stop Beatin' Around the Mulberry Bush" which had been recorded a couple of decades earlier by Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey and others. It's different words to a different melody (basically the kiddy song "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush", but close your eyes and you'll see a monkey chasing the weasel:)


The ever-cool Anthony Newley in 1963 performed this swinging version of Weasel, using the British lyrics, in 1963:


The Beatles recorded this instrumental for the BBC radio show Pop Go The Beatles in 1963:


In the early '90s, the forgotten white rap group 3rd Base brought "Weasel" into the hip-hop universe. Supposedly the Weasel in this version was 3rd Base's arch rival Vanilla Ice, who was depicted in this video by Henry Rollins:

And finally, Andy Kaufman in the '70s used to lipsych to a record of the song by something called The Crown Records Studio Group:

Check out Alan Sherman's parody of "Pop! Goes The Weasel" on this early Wacky Wednesday post

For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook

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