windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty

White_Mulberry

Here we go round the mulberry bush

This rather curious and somewhat long-winded rhyme begins, “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”. The rhyme continues using the same structure – two repetitions of the second half of the first line followed by the first line again followed by early in the morning – describing  the way we wash our face, comb our hair, brush our teeth and put on our clothes with a reprise of the first verse bringing the rhyme to a conclusion. All the activities take place early in the morning.

The first peculiarity about this rhyme is that the mulberry is neither indigenous to the U.K nor do the fruits grow on a bush. There are between 10 to 16 species of mulberries but all of them are deciduous trees. James Orchard Halliwell, who first recorded the rhyme in the mid 19th century commented that it was an English children’s game, observing that there was a similar game which was accompanied by the lyrics, here we go round the bramble bush.  Now the bramble, which is a term given to any rough, tangled, prickly shrub is both indigenous to the UK and undoubtedly a bush. The version involving the bramble may well be the earlier.

Mulberry leaves, particularly those of the white mulberry, are the sole food source of silkworms. In the 18th and 19th centuries Britain tried to emulate the successful Chinese silk trade by cultivating its own mulberry trees. The experiment was not a great success, not least because the tree was too sensitive to survive the frosty winters and the periodic bouts of harsh winters. It may be that the bramble bush proved too tricky from an alliterative and metrical perspective and was replaced by the mulberry. There may be some merit in this theory because a variant of the rhyme replaces so early in the morning with on a cold and frosty morning. The withered remnants of a mulberry that had failed to survive a harsh frost may have prompted a rhyme satirising the ill-fated attempts to create a home-grown silk industry.

Inevitably, there are other possible origins for the rhyme. A local historian, R.S.Duncan, suggested that the song originated with female prisoners at Wakefield jail. A sprig was taken from a mulberry tree from Hatfield hall near Wakefield, was planted in the prison grounds, grew into a mature tree around which the prisoners exercised. Charming as this story may be there is no evidence to support it. Rather the rhyme has parallels in other cultures, particularly in Scandinavia, where the bush around which the dancers go is the juniper. The song is embedded in popular folk culture.

The game which accompanies the rhyme is fairly simple. The participants hold hands in a circle and moving around to the first verse, alternated with the specific verse where the players break up to imitate the various appropriate actions. Simple as that.

In 1938 a song entitled Stop Beatin’ Round the Mulberry Bush, based on the rhyme and  recorded by bands such as Count Basie, Jack Hylton and Joe Loss, gained some popularity. In 1953 Bill Haley and the Comets revived the song again to popular acclaim.

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