Reflections on Children’s Music – Part V – Pete Seeger
14 Saturday Jul 2012
(I introduced the great American scholar, Leslie Fiedler, in Part I of these essays on children’s music. My comments are informed by concepts introduced in a graduate course Leslie taught on children’s literature.)
There is a fierceness about Pete Seeger’s children’s songs that you don’t hear in the friendly voices of Ella Jenkins or Burl Ives. But fierce is good. Kids cotton to that just as much as they do to songs about poop and pee or flying and cuddling. Pete Seger is the noisy kid in the children’s music room to whom the stuffy teachers always say shhhhh.
And here’s a song full of everything that children love in a story: terror, humor, romance, debauchery, gluttony, pathos, cowardice, violence, and death: “Frog Went A-Courting.” Frog rides to Miss Mouse, sets her on his knee, and asks her to marry him. She needs the permission of Uncle Rat, and Rat is delighted and the wedding is arranged. Rat and the young couple work out details of the wedding. There are various versions of the wedding but it always ends in disaster. In Pete’s version Mister Snake eats up the wedding cake, Rufus Grouse dances a wild breakdown, and Angus Slik eats so much he gets sick – how did a gigantic bull get in there any way? In the end Mister Cat shows up, scares away the Frog and eats Miss Mousie.
Leslie Fiedler stated that the chief catastrophe in fairy tales is being eaten. Hansel and Grettle, the Three Little Pigs, the Gingerbread Man, Little Red Riding Hood, and a multitude of other tales deal with this problem. Children have oral aggression. Instinct drives them all to bite and they all have to be taught not to bite other people. There are other torments suffered in fairy tales: starving, exile, being lost, dying, being immobilized. Why is being eaten so much worse than any of these? Why is being eaten such a deep fear? It has something to do with hopelessness. As long as you have a body, you still have a chance. In fairy tales, even dead bodies can be brought back to life. But when your body is destroyed all hope is lost. But Leslie argued that the fear of being cannibalized plumbs even more primordial depths.
Fairy tales deal with the family, not class conflict, not political structure, not religious salvation. And the happiest ending in fairy tales is getting married and starting a new family. Happiness does not lie in being virtuous, loving god, being strong, or even being wealthy. Fairy tale happiness is characterized by marriage, having children, carrying on the cycle of human life.
But marriage also has the virtue of being a way of leaving home, getting away from the parents. Because, in fairy tales, there is always a problem associated with the parents. Parent figures are usually the creatures who stop marriage, who stop the cycle of life, either through weakness or wickedness. The best way to stop someone from marrying, is to incorporate them, to eat them. In fairy tales true love is thwarted in numerous ways: by being eaten, like the boy in “The Juniper Tree,” being paralyzed like Sleeping Beauty, being poisoned like Snow White, being imprisoned like Rapunzel. It is usually the wicked mother figure who keeps the child from going out into the world and finding love. And it is usually the father figure who is too weak to do anything about it.
This is a nightmare that must be broken. Life has to go on. The young must marry the young. The old must yield to the young. Fortunately the young are not without resources. There is usually a beneficent person: a wise and mysterious person, usually ancient or ageless: a grandmother, the wise old man in the woods, a magical being. They tell stories and reveal secrets to the children, articulate their deepest fears, and reveal their unconscious dreams. The magical benefactor helps the child solve riddles, reveals to the child strength she does not know she possesses, gives her a magic object, socializes the child to marry and have children, all against the wishes of the parents. The evil magic is undone when a suitable lover comes along. The impediment, the cannibalism, the incorporation, fails. Fairy tale children and grandparents get along because they have a common enemy: the parents.
The happy ending results in the establishment of a healthy family. Either the victimized child escapes and marries her true love, or the children band together against the weak father and wicked step mother, the mother is killed, and the father and children form a new family.
“Frog Went A-Courting” is a very old song, imported from Europe. Just when the happy ending should occur in a fairy tale, the worst possible catastrophe occurs. Not only is the marriage unfulfilled, but the bride is eaten. It is a very sad tale, humorously told, of unrequited love caused by the death of the bride at her wedding. And it endures to this day because it resonates in the primordial family issues identified by Leslie Fiedler. Tragedy always inspires humor. It is easy to imagine how some real life wedding misfortune was transformed into a jocular ballad and sung down through the ages, the original sorrow utterly lost.
Traditional, “Frog Went A-Courting,” No publisher (1955). From Pete Seeger, Birds Beasts Bugs and Little Fishes: Animal Folk Songs Sung by Pete Seeger, Folkways Records, FCS 7610 (1968). Album Art – Maggie MacGowan.