Friday, March 26, 2021

Ring Around the Rosie

Kate Greenaway, "Ring-a-ring-a-roses," Mother Goose (1881)
“Ring Around the Rosie” is the iconic children’s circle game song. The words and melody have varied over time. Here’s the one I learned as a kid:

Ring around the rosie

A pocket full of posies

Upstairs, downstairs

We all fall down.

It’s a strikingly simple game. You hold hands and move in a circle till you get to the part about falling down, and you fall down. Then you get up and do it again. I’ve hardly ever seen any additional verses or accounts of the game being any more complicated. You just keep repeating it for the sheer simple pleasure of it. There's no story (it's not about the plague), and the main appeal seems to be the fun of spinning and falling (the dizzying kind of play Roger Caillois called ilinx). In some historical accounts, the last person to fall or squat becomes the “rose tree” and stands in the center of the circle for the next round. There’s at least one account of it being used by young children in the US as a kissing game. I wonder if this suggests some kind of connection to play party games that nineteenth-century adolescents played as outlets for flirtation and courtship.

The tune currently most associated with the rhyme in the United States is an iteration of what Patricia Sheehan Campbell has called the children’s “ur-song,” famously sung as “nana nana boo boo!”

It first appeared in print in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose; or, the Old Nursery Rhymes (1881).

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