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Songs of Yesterday: The On-Going Weasel Debate

In the nursery rhyme "Pop! Goes the Weasel," did you learn that the "monkey chased the weasel" around a cobbler's bench or a mulberry bush? This age-old debate is addressed in this lighthearted article about a very real situation in 1700s England.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Jean Hibben
Word Count: 1686 (approx.)
Labels: Surname Origin 
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For all of our married life together (that's 33 years and counting), my husband and I have had an ongoing disagreement about a particular children's song. It surprises me that one song can cause so much disagreement in an otherwise peaceful household. I will even, ashamedly, admit that voices have been raised in this debate (OK, usually it's my voice that's raised – he is far more calm and collected when it comes to song histories). So I will present to you here my side of the Great Weasel Debate.

I grew up in Wilmette (Cook County), Illinois, and, in our back yard we had a mulberry tree. It was a wonderful tree that provided a huge amount of shade, creating almost a cave for me - I had no need for a playhouse: I had a mulberry tree (with delicious berries that I was permitted to eat until I could hold no more). During this same childhood, my father, an expert pianist, taught me all the nursery rhymes, including one that went, "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush; here we go 'round the mulberry bush, so early in the morning." Well, that song made very little sense to me for a number of reasons:

1) Our mulberry-bearing plant was huge and going around it would be very difficult, mainly because there was a hedge bordering it on one side and a fence on the other: you couldn't get around it if you wanted to!

2) Our mulberry tree bore no resemblance to a bush whatsoever.

3) We were all late sleepers in our family and doing anything early in the morning was completely out of the question!

I was also taught another song that went: "All around the cobbler's bench, the monkey chased the weasel; the monkey thought 'twas all in fun, POP! goes the weasel." It appeared to be nonsense, but was fun to sing, nevertheless. (Please note: these two songs had completely different tunes and sets of lyrics.)

Fast forward many years to a time after my marriage to my husband, to a time when we were singing strange songs and he started in with, "All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel . . ." I stopped him cold! Why would a monkey be in the vicinity of a mulberry bush? Didn't he know the proper version? I tried explaining the elements of the song to him, from my position as a folklorist who has actually spent some time researching this particular children's rhyme, as well as being one who has hung around mulberry flora. The spinning wheel and its apparatus, the weasel, which actually "popped" during the sewing process (I've heard that the pop was to tell the worker that the spool was out of thread or that the desired amount of thread had been used). I went on to explain about the "monkey," which some believe is the child laborer, running around the workbench (cobbler's bench) to make sure the weavers and spinners had whatever they needed (Wittens & Nagtegaal). (The next line - "A penny for a spool of thread, a penny for a needle, that's the way the money goes, POP! goes the weasel" - gives much more credence to monkeys chasing weasels around cobbler's benches as opposed to mulberry bushes, where very little sewing is likely to take place.)

For years now I have believed that this debate raged only within the walls of our own home – who else would waste time arguing about the monkey-chasing venue? But then I Googled the various versions and found that this topic has occupied the time of a good many people out there, undoubtedly concerned about mulberry bush safety (monkey and weasel activity in such a vicinity could damage a good summer crop, I would imagine) and the logic of having monkeys and weasels in a cobbler's place of business.

Well, here's the deal. "Pop! Goes the Weasel" originated in about the seventeenth century in Britain, then it moved across the pond with the immigrants to find a new home here, where the mulberry trees grow. Anyway, in England, the singers make references to such things as "the City Road," "the Eagle" (a London tavern) and the cost of such items as "tupenny rice" and "treacle" (a syrup). One theory is that the song is sung by the children of the hatter (hat-maker) whose father takes his day's wages and spends them at the pub before coming home. "Up and down the City Road, In and out the Eagle, That's the way the money goes, Pop! Goes the weasel." Some believe that the tag phrase actually is Cockney for "pawning (popping) one's coat" – the "weasel" being the coat and "popping" being something a person would do if running short on funds (Adams). One interpretation is that the workman, having just one decent coat to his name (for his Sunday attire, primarily) would pawn the garment on Monday, drink the "profits," and then spend the rest of the week working to get the item out of hock on Saturday, in time for meetings on Sunday (Lost Lyrics).

But it seems more an accepted belief that the "weasel" referred to is not the garment, but the means by which garments are created: part of the sewing, or weaving, trade. This is confirmed by an archivist and weaver who clarified that the need for the weasel (and its popping ability) is to help the weaver keep track of the amount of yarn that has been spun (something that is necessary in the manufacture of various linens and other items – such as coats – for which the spinning is being done). With a weasel in place, the busy spinner does not need to count the revolutions of the wheel; just setting the weasel takes that responsibility out of his or her mind (Pfeiffer). Early automation!

Another suggestion, combining the two interpretations, agrees with the pawning, but that the item hocked is the "weasel," as discussed earlier, being a sewing tool of the hat-maker (Morris & Morris, p. 466). One version of the song states, "Every night when I go out, The monkey's on the table, Take a stick and knock it off, Pop! Goes the weasel." We might wonder what sort of household has monkeys on tables; and the act of knocking them off with a stick sounds like animal cruelty. However, one interpretation of that verse is that "monkey" is Cockney slang for £500, so if there is such an amount of money lying around the house, the drinking husband/father is prone to taking it quickly to use for his bar tab. (I wonder what household, of any class, is likely to have that large amount of money sitting on the table "every night"?) That same suggestion, given by Robert Creed, includes the explanation that the "weasel" is an iron used in the tailor's trade, so the exchange of weasel for money (the suggested £500) means that the drinking husband/father/tailor is putting his trade at risk when he pawns his occupational tools for alcohol (Lost Lyrics). How will he get the tools out of hock with no means of making a living?

In a censored version of the song, the "tupenny rice" and "treacle" are "mixed up and made nice" (for consumption – possibly all the family can afford); however there is also the theory that, instead of making a nice rice pudding of the grain and syrup, the preparer is actually brewing the mixture to make homemade hooch (Briggs). This makes me wonder if the drinking husband (who could be a cobbler, tailor, hatter, or weaver, at this point) is consuming his alcohol at home and then, in a drunken stupor, seeing monkeys and weasels running around tables while he attempts, in vain, to knock them into Kingdom Come. (We already know that hatters could be driven mad by the mercuric nitrate used in their business [Garrison, p. 133], perhaps some of these craftsmen were just a few drinks away from seeing all sorts of creatures in their midst anyway.)

A number of innocuous rhymes have been added to this English import, not the least of which is the "mulberry bush" rendition, already discussed (maybe in a later article I'll explain more about that song, which has a completely different set of lyrics). In more recent years, probably to get the song to make even the slightest amount of sense to the latest generation of children, newer, more modern verses have popped (no pun intended) up. Some of these can be found at Dick Oakes's website of traditional American songs (see URL under references below and scroll down that web page for more verses of this ditty than you will ever probably want to sing!).

How did your ancestors sing this song? How do you remember it? I imagine if it were being composed today, we would change "Pop goes the weasel" to "Click! Goes the mouse" (and then what debates would rage 300 years from now?). Oh, I am already coming up with verses for that!

References

Adams, Cecil. "What Does ‘Pop Goes the Weasel' Mean?" The Straight Dope, 2 April 1999, Accessed 1 August 2010, from http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1314/what-does-pop-goes-the-weasel-mean.

Briggs, James. "Re: Brit Version," The Phrase Finder, 31 October 2004, Accessed 1 August 2010, from http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/36/messages/87.html.

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Lost Lyrics, History and Origins of Old Nursery Rhymes, "Pop Goes the Weasel: Rhyme Lyrics, Origins and History," Lost Lyrics, History and Origins of Old Nursery Rhymes, Accessed 1 August 2010, from http://www.rhymes.org.uk/a116a-pop-goes-the-weasel.htm.

Morris, William, & Morris, Mary. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Oakes, Dick. "United States Song Words," Phantom Ranch, 2010, Accessed 2 August 2010, from http://www.phantomranch.net/folkdanc/songs/songs_usa.htm.

Pfeiffer, Judith. "Pop Goes the Weasel: Rhyme Lyrics, Origins and History," Lost Lyrics, History and Origins of Old Nursery Rhymes, Accessed 1 August 2010, from http://www.rhymes.org.uk/a116b-pop-goes-the-weasel-meaning.htm.

Wittens, Steven, and Nagtegaal, Stefan. "Pop Goes the Weasel Day and Other June 14 Holidays," Worlds of Wonder, Blogpress, 14 June 2009, Accessed 1 August 1, 2010, from http://worldsofwonder.wordpress.com/2009/06/14/pop-goes-the-weasel-day-and-other-june-14-holidays/.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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