First of all we must apologise to our many readers, particularly to those of you who have taken the time to write to us with your variants, for the delay in updating these pages. Looking back, however, the delay has given us the opportunity to more fully review your letters which, in turn, has allowed us to cite more line variants that you have sent in. This has also given us the material we have needed to come to some tentative conclusions about the rhyme - or rhymes.
This particular page of the British Columbia Folklore Society's web site was begun following an article that we ran in the experimental first issue of the Society's Newsletter (April 2001)—and not in the Society Journal B.C. FOLKLORE, as previously stated—in which we cited four, composite verses of the "Two Dead Boys" rhyme instigated by a variant told to us by David Fleetwood of Cowichan Station. David was born in British Columbia in 1929 and worked as a cat-skinner in logging camps for most of his life. He remembered his grandfather reciting the poem but said his own recollection of it was not complete. After checking out various sources, including the Opies [the authors Iona and Peter] and the Web, we compiled and published the four, composite verses given below and asked our readers for any further input.
The folklorist and writer Ed Cray, writing to others on an Internet ballad chat line, noted that the rhyme was a "Ballad of Impossibilities" and that, "A number of these songs/ballads of impossibilities were printed as broadsides in the 18th and 19th centuries. At least one, The Derby Ram is/was well known in the 20th Century, and Peggy Seeger introduced another during the folk song revival, Little Brown Dog, culled from her mother's anthology of Animal Folk Songs for Children."
Professor Cray then asks, "Can anyone provide, first, a tune for the children's rhyme "One Fine Day" and thus turn a poem into a song; and, second, can members of the list provide references to other songs of impossibilities?"
Although the Two Dead Boys poem (“One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night”) is often referred to as a nonsense rhyme, the description is not strictly accurate. It is clearly understandable in any of its many forms and versions and the impossibilities in the story are no more than sensible words and phrases that have been transposed. An example of a true nonsense rhyme can be seen for instance in the first four lines of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking Glass, which goes:
One can get a feeling for the severe, gathering darkness of the poem from Carroll’s introductory lines but, until Humpty Dumpty explains it in its entirety, the poem, and particularly these first four lines, makes no sense at all.
As to the history of “One Fine Day…” it appears to have evolved from tangle-worded couplets that have been popular in Miracle Plays and the folklore and folksongs of the British Isles since the Middle Ages. Tiddy, in his book The Mummers’ Play [1923, Oxford, Oxford University Press], cites the earliest known example of this type of humour as appearing in the manuscript of Land of Cockaigne about 1305 [Tiddy 1923, p. 116] and a 15th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library [MS Engl. poet. e. 1: c.1480] includes four lines that are directly related to our rhyme. These can be translated into modern English as:
In a similar form the lines remained in Scottish tradition to the mid 19th century in the Lying Song [Shoolbraid, Bairnsangs, unpublished manuscript, 2004].
The 16th century English folksong Martin Said to his Man is a drunken exchange of impossibilities between a master and his servant, each of whom is attempting to outdo the other. The song includes such lines as:
"One fine day in the middle of the night" (Journal Versions)
A great deal of electronic mail has been sent to us about the rhyme since we first uploaded this page. The material that follows is an analysis of the line variants followed by a composite version and the analysis of a rhyme (Ladies and gentlemen, hoboes and tramps) that is known by at least half of our correspondents as the leadup to the "Two Dead Boys". However, whether it is a separate rhyme that has been added later to give the original poem more body or is part of the original that has been forgotten by many is a moot point at this late stage. The difficulties with trying to justify linking the parts and calling them a single poem revolve particularly round the inconsistencies with meter and rhyme, and with the orphan lines that still cannot be paired.
Line Analysis 1
The version of the "Two Dead Boys" rhyme given above is clearly not the original way it was composed, even though it includes a great many of the popular elements remembered and recited. Amongst the more obvious inconsistencies are the number of blind men and the problem of which of them the donkey kicked in the eye. That aside, a look at the variants in line composition that have been sent to us by our readers is illuminating, to say the least. Clearly many people are quite prepared to accept both unequal meter in the lines and lines that simply don't rhyme as being an acceptable aspect of this poem even though the structure of folk poetry very rarely occurs outside strict poetic boundaries.
which someone else sent in as:
The first lines of these last two variants were reversed by a third reader who had it linked with the second line as in variant one.
And with the alternate endings: "...shot one another" and, "...shot another."
In one instance a reader, brought up in Colorado, remembered two lines dating back to the mid 1950's that followed these lines:
And another remembered:
That appeared further on.
and a couple of readers doubled the policeman making them: "Two deaf policemen..."
In one case the two deaf policemen:
"Drew their guns and stabbed the poor boys."
While another deaf policeman actually:
"Came and rescued the two dead boys."
And a very proper policeman:
"Came to investigate the two dead boys."
Then there was:
"If you don't think my tale is tall" - which rhymes with, "...he saw it all."
One person also left off the leading word, "If" and made the line into a question with
a question mark at the end: "You don't believe this story's true?"
In two other versions the line simply became, "If you don't believe me", which also didn't actually rhyme with anything that followed.
Elsewhere (just to play safe) it also became:
Ladies and gentlemen, hoboes and tramps.
This rhyme was given by a number of readers as an introduction to the "Two Dead Boys". Whether it was originally designed as part of the "Two Dead Boys" rhyme or was created later and then added as an introduction is anybody's guess at this late stage; the two rhymes do not have exactly the same meter but then, neither of the rhymes is entirely consistent in that respect. Certainly both are capable of existing independently.
Line Analysis 2
The following examples of line content vary considerably from person to person. The examples given are the primary variants that have been sent in to us but we received many others. The reader must appreciate, however, that there is not room here for all the small variants, particularly, for example, where the word "and" is substituted for the word "or", or something similar. Not all variants occur in the same order as that given above and occasionally an extra line is added here and there.
And Gill Legge sent in:
Then there were these two lines that were also sent in:
After this, the lines about, "The topic to discuss..." etc. are often left out and the rhyme
goes on to the rhyme of the "Two Dead Boys". Stephanie, however, remembered the rhyme going on
Another reader went from our line four to:
Other Odd Versions, Beginnings and Endings
Caroline Flaherty in London, England, sent this foreshortened, fragmented (and slightly edited) version:
This was augmented by Frank Black writing to tell us of a variant that his grandfather, George Titus, a farmer in Kingston New Brunswick, used to recite that went:
A variant of the same rhyme was remembered by Howard O'Dell, who was brought up in East London. It went:
And another reader, Galen Carlin in Australia, remembered:
These lines were followed by the following concepts, but in an order that Galen could not exactly remember:
That another reader remembered the water that caught alight as being the River Thames that runs through London:
With regard to a totally different version, Jim Brannigan, brought up in Scotland, remembered:
...as well as another, unrelated nonsense rhyme.
The end of the version of the "Two Dead Boys" rhyme remembered by Susan Smith of Cincinnati was augmented by the two lines:
And finally (at least, for the moment), following the "...blind brother who saw it all", given in a version cited above, the ending - as far as variants are concerned - took off in a whole new direction:
To the meeting's end,
You, my enemy,
Are now my friend,
Oh, I see said the blind man,
To his two deaf daughters on the disconnected telephone."
One of the things to keep in mind about folk poetry is that, in the original, and in
established versions, folk poetry invariably rhymes. This is particularly true of the
Two Dead Boys rhyme and readers should understand that variants that include verses
with lines that do not rhyme are probably family memorials.
These are interesting to the folklorist both as aspects of general studies in family folklore, and for their component parts as analytical constituents in specific papers, such as the one on this web site.
Thanks to all of you who have written to us. If we have missed citing your particular variant, we apologise; keeping all our correspondence straight is sometimes less efficient than it should be.
Any comments or suggestions regarding material on the Society's website can be e-mailed directly to the Society at firstname.lastname@example.org
For general inquiries by mail or to inquire about making donations to the Society, please write to:The British Columbia Folklore Society
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