04/11/01
Eve Merriam's Inner City Nursery Rhymes
    by Kevin Shortsleeve

In 1969, Eve Merriam published a collection of verse entitled, The Inner City Mother Goose. The book was a series of Mother Goose parodies of biting criticism of some our society's most difficult problems; violence, racism, and corruption. The book was received with alarm by many educators and parents, and by 1982, Merriam admitted that it had become one of the most banned books in the country. Among its less controversial offerings were poems like:

Hickory Dickory Dock
The Crowd ran up the block.
A cop struck one,
A rock got thrown;
Hickory Dickory riot.

But this is among the less shocking in a volume riddled with violent images and uninhibited street language. At the time of its publication, one reviewer noted that The Inner City Mother Goose was "worlds removed in mood and content from the traditional Mother Goose poems". In fact, the opposite is true. In the original Mother Goose collections, published in the mid 1700s and early 1800s, death, dismemberment, prostitution, domestic abuse and street language run rampant throughout the pages: And subversive political statements are found in abundance. In the seventeen hundreds, for example, British subjects were required - at their own expense - to feed and house military grenadiers. Note this reaction published in the 1765 Mother Goose.

Who comes here?
A Grenadier.
What do you want?
A pot of Beer.
Where is your money?
I've forgot.
Get you gone
You drunken sot.
The fact is, being folk poems, - that is; rising up from the people - nursery rhymes have often had a subversive - anti-authoritarian tone. Lewis Carroll was echoing the sentiment of the times when he mercilessly depicted the queen in the Alice books as a bumbling buffoon and Dr. Seuss, was in tune with his times - the civil rights movement - when Yertle the Turtle toppled the King and taught us, "a person's a person, no matter how small."

More recently - and more shockingly realistic, like Merriam's poems, is another Mother Goose parody - 1992's The House that Crack Built by Clark Taylor which depicts the drug world in all its tragedy from the South American growers to the degrading circumstances suffered by its inner city victims.

Books like The Inner City Mother Goose, and The House that Crack Built are, by most standards, not for little children. The books are used to good effect however, to foster social awareness in adolescents and adults. It is unlikely that this old tradition will ever fade away. As long as there are causes to fight for, catchy lyrics will keep rising up from the people, as they do today in rap lyrics. For, if you want someone to remember a message, the old rule still applies; make it simple, and make it rhyme.

Copyright 2001 by Kevin Shortsleeve

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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:23:57 EDT


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for the Study of Children's Literature and Media and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."