Okay, Who Do We Know Who’s a Folklorist?!

I’m innocently watching NCIS, working on the baby blanket for my cousin, when all of a sudden they start singing a song about a goat.  And I about fall over.

Now, I’m looking through the archives and I see I have never told you about The Old Woman and the Pig.  Grandma Avis used to sing us this song when we were little. An old woman is sweeping her floor and she finds two gold coins and she decides, in her fortune, to go to the market and buy a pig, which she does.  She heads for home and she gets to the style and the pig won’t cross it.  No matter what she does.

So, she goes a little way and she finds a dog and she says (and this part you sing), “Dog, dog, bite that pig, pig won’t go.  And I see by the moonlight, it’s almost midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”  But the dog would not, so she went a little farther.

And so on.  Until the hammer begins to break the knife, which begins to cut the rope, which begins to hang the Butcher, who begins to kill the ox, who begins to drink the water, who begins to quench the fire, that beings to burn the stick, which begins to beat the dog, which finally bites the pig, which begins to go and the old woman gets home.

You can see a variation of it here.

I cannot stress enough how this is the foundational text of my young life. My mom even made my grandma a needlepoint thingy commemorating this song.

I also should mention that this is the side of the family who claims to have been secretly Jewish.

So, I ask you, America, can you even begin to guess how I about fell over while watching NCIS, then, when they began to discuss the song “Chad Gadya,” which is, coincidentally, a song about a guy who buys a goat with two coins and the goat gets bit by a dog, who gets hit by a stick, which gets burnt by a fire and so on. There’s even a butcher who kills an ox.

How can those not be two versions of the same song?

So, clearly, this begs two questions. 1.) Did my family learn this as an English folksong or is this proof of the secretly English Jews story? 2.) And holy shit! Is this not proof that we should teach our kids everything we want passed down for generations in the form of a catchy song?

I’m working on one right now–Give your Aunt Betsy chocolate cake; it’s easy to make, chocolate cake.  Give your Aunt Betsy apple pie and chocolate cake; it’s easy to make, chocolate cake.  Give your Aunt Betsy great big hugs and apple pie and chocolate cake; it’s easy to make, chocolate cake.” etc. etc.

People won’t know who the hell I was in 300 years, but they’ll remember that I liked chocolate cake. Maybe they’ll make chocolate cake for their aunts. Aunts around the world will cheer in memory of me, the woman who made chocolate cake and being an aunt synonymous.

Anyway, I am tickled.

10 thoughts on “Okay, Who Do We Know Who’s a Folklorist?!

  1. Well, I’m a folklorist and have written several undergrad papers on this exact subject.

    My specialty is Judaica reinterpreted in folklore and folkways of Celtic peoples. So this is kinda up my alley.

    I think, though, that this story origin is actually Germanic and was carried to Israel by repatriating Jews.

    Stylistically Chad Gadya has more in common with the Saxon Consequence Rhymes ( house that Jack built, old woman who swallowed the fly, Hole in the bucket).

  2. I should clarify further–I’m trying to condense years of study into concise comments that convey information without paralysing density–that those examples are not old Saxon themselves but the better known modern examples is cumulative structure popular in the types of stories like Chad Gadya.

    The difficulty for folklorists in when studying in Israel is that centuries of Diaspora and millennia of other cultures drawn to what is now Israel make that area a sort of folkloric lint ball.

  3. I think your family is most likely both English in origin and possessed of some degree of Jewish ancestry but you’ll never be able to tell that based on this song.

  4. You should be tickled! That’s what’s fun about folklore. It’s like finding a longlost cousin.

    (my typing tone is off. I don’t intend for all this to come across as pedantic as it is. Sorry. )

  5. I don’t watch NCIS, so I don’t know what was said on it about the song. What I know is this: the version of “Chad Gadya” that’s mostly sung today was first printed in the late 16th century (Prague) but there are earlier versions going back at least to the 13th century (Avignon/Papal States).

    There are a lot of different explanations of “what it means” and why it’s part of the Seder. The most common explanation is that the kid represents the Jews and all the other beings in the song are successive invaders/persecutors. I wonder myself (on the basis of nothing whatsoever) if it became part of the Passover service because the service already contains so many other cumulative/chain songs, prayers, or recitations of this type, the rest of which are obviously relevant. There’s the list of plagues, the Daienu, and “Echod Mi Yodeah” just off the top of my head. So maybe people were having so much fun singing cumulative songs that they added one more.

    OTOH, it’s in Aramaic, and it’s not clear why 13th century Jews would have been singing Aramaic cumulative songs just for jollies, since it wasn’t a current language for them except for study of Talmud. So maybe the traditional explanation is right after all.

  6. And holy shit! Is this not proof that we should teach our kids everything we want passed down for generations in the form of a catchy song?

    Music is one of the most effective memorization tools there is. How did you learn your ABCs?

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