Child Lore Revisited

Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: The Subversive Folklore of Childhood. By Josepha Sherman and T. K. F. Weisskopf. August House, 250 pp, November 1995

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Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts is an anthology of childhood rhymes viewed through the lens of subversive folklore. Folklore can be defined as stories, customs, and beliefs passed on to later generations through word of mouth.

Sherman and Weisskopf have amassed a plethora of childhood rhymes as recalled by respondents of various demographics. These rhymes date back to the 1950s through the 1990s, although some have gone through several revisions. The rhymes seem to have had a strong presence in the 1960s and 1970s.

They take various forms, including hand-clapping games, jump-roping songs, and poems. Readers will find themselves humming the tunes of their childhood, playground memories bubbling up spontaneously.

Sherman and Weisskopf have organized the rhymes into three sections. Section 1 contains basic rhymes, which are primarily used by children to figure out their bodies and human development.

Section 2 includes rhymes concerned with the boundaries of society and dealing with authority. Who makes up authority? Parents, social groups, and organized religion. This section also includes rhymes that would be considered racist in today’s world.

Section 3, which takes on the world of advertising and media, contains rhymes that play on popular songs, jingles, and such. In addition, there is an extensive notes section, which is well worth reading. The notes provide background on terminology, the interviewees, and history.

The rhymes in all three sections are used to discover and test boundaries. They often involve casting insults. Many can be viewed as subversive because they are being used to establish or invert dominance, including dominance over individuals, groups, authority figures, or races. In some cases, the subversion is overt; in others, it is subtle. For example, what mores are being taunted with the following rhyme? Me Chinese—me play joke, Me go peepee in your Coke!

Respondents reported learning the rhymes from older children, camp counselors, and occasionally their parents. These rhymes helped children learn the unspoken rules of the schoolyard and beyond.

As the book was published in 1995, it would be interesting to see the extent to which this type of folklore is present in this century. How has technology shaped the use of such rhymes, if at all? Would today’s children relate to some of the rhymes in the book? Have they invented new ones to try to understand the issues children now face? I find myself wanting to visit a playground to sit and just listen to the children and try to understand their life perspective from the things they say.


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By (author): Josepha Sherman and T. K. F. Weisskopf

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