Appalachia Rhymes

Old King Cole Was A Merry Old Soul

Old king cole was a merry ole soul

Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe,
and he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three.

Every fiddler he had a fiddle,
And a very fine fiddle had he.
Oh there’s none so rare,
As can compare,
With King Cole and his fiddlers three.

or this version

Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe in the middle of the night
And he called for his fiddlers three.

Every fiddler had a fine fiddle, and a very fine fiddle had he;
Oh there’s none so rare as can compare
With King Cole and his fiddlers three.


Historians say the origin of this rhyme dates all the way back to the third century. But when it comes to deciding exactly who Old King Cole was-there are varying opinions.

The identity of King Cole could have been one of three different Celtic Kings of Britian: Coel Godhebog better known as Cole the Magnificent; Coel Hen, known as Coel the Old; or St. Ceneu ap Coel.

Coel is the Celtic word for the English word Cole-so that explains that part.

Cole the Magnificent was the Lord of Colchester -b.220 Decurion of Rome. His daughter, Helena had a son with Constantius who became Constantine the Great.

Coel the Old (Coel Hen c.350-c.420) was referred to as the old because of his longevity. He reigned during the decline of the Roman Empire. He was believed to have been the last Decurion.

St. Ceneu ap Coel was Coel the Old’s son. St. Ceneu ap was Sainted for holding up Christian ways.

The rhyme was most likely written about Coel the Old but no one knows for sure. I’m not sure when or how I learned the rhyme-probably at school. I only learned the first lines:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe,
and he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three.

I always pictured a kind heavy set bearded man as Old King Cole in my mind-I still do. I also always thought it would be pretty cool to ‘call’ for all the things I needed and have them arrive around my chair.

I have to get my own bowl when I want it-and I don’t really need a pipe for anything-but it sure is nice having a fiddle player at my beck and call. I have fiddle tunes on demand…just don’t tell her I said that.


*Source: Roberts, Chris. Heavy words lightly thrown: the reason behind the rhyme. Large print ed. Waterville, Me.: Thorndike Press, 2006. Print;


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  • Reply
    August 26, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Granny Norma-now that kind of pipe I would like to have : ) Good point!
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia

  • Reply
    Granny Norma
    August 26, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    Hey! Wait a minute! The illustration for the king shows a smoking pipe but that was the artist’s idea. Playing the pipes goes back to the dawn of time when bird bones were carved into little flutes and whistles. Perhaps Cole had a flute player to accompany the fiddlers. And while we’re at it, that bowl was probably a large drinking cup.
    P.S. to Ed Ammons question – Who was it said “this just keeps getting ‘curiouser and curiouser?'”:
    That would be Alice who fell down the rabbit hole and later slipped through the looking glass.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 22, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    Hmmmm! Interesting! A pipe and a bowl! A bowl I can understand. Maybe a fruit bowl. or soup! or buttons, he looks like he might be prone to pop a few. Not tobacco! Not in the fifth century. Tobacco (baccer) wasn’t known in the “Old World” until after Chris Columbus “discovered” the New World. So maybe we can account for the bowl but what is in that pipe?
    Who was it said “this just keeps getting ‘curiouser and curiouser?'”

  • Reply
    August 22, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    I knew (and know!) the first version.
    This post is a good example of why I follow your blog so closely: a wide variety of fascinating information and the wonderful comments of your readers!!

  • Reply
    August 22, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    I learned the “called for his bowl” version, and I also thought how nice it would be to “call for” things and have them appear! I should ask my goats about it…if they feel the hay is late in appearing, they will certainly “call” for it, and I can hear them all the way inside the house. And voila! The hay appears!

  • Reply
    August 22, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Really enjoyed this! Thanks for your research and sharing!

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    August 22, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    and Ed…yes my book also has the same representation of Old King Cole and his fiddlers…
    I also noticed Larry, Curley and Mo and also the long necked fiddles…The toke pipe seemed out of place to me as well. Other pictures I have seen, the King holds a long curved pipe with a small fancy tobacco bowl!
    Me thinks this author of this particular rhyme book might consider getting a more informed graphic artist for the illustrations…What I might do is investigate the time when the illustrations of the fiddlers were done perhaps to note if she/he was aware of Larry, Curly and Moe….ooooooooh…tis scary!
    So funny Ed…
    I also think the little “page ?” might prefer the cat and the fiddle as he has it on the back of his vestment!
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    August 22, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Lots of little rhymes and poems
    were handed down thru the generations. Most didn’t make any
    sense to me either, but I still
    enjoy them. You are a lucky girl
    to have two gals that can fiddle
    and play the guitar…and I must
    mention “singing harmony.” …Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 22, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Madam, thy portrayal doth appear to have historical inaccuracies.
    Firstly, His Bulbaceousness seemth to be toking from a long flexible tube which, in the fifth century, is unlikely.
    Secondly, His fiddlers seem to possess the countenances of Larry, Curly and Moe, a twentieth century conflation.
    Thirdly, The instruments on which those buffoons appear to be playing are ukuleles with waists. Two haveth only sound holes while the third hath both f-holes and a sound hole.
    Is the avian, perched behind the Royal Blob, the Owl of “Owl and the Pussycat?” Hath his one true love been sacrificed to produce the strings upon those wretched instruments. Hath his guitar been broken apart and used in the making of those illogical fiddles?
    Personally I thinkth that all the characters whose likeness’s herein appear as “adult” should be imprisoned for animal cruelty and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

  • Reply
    August 22, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Ah! Such a fun memory rhyme from my childhood. We never really knew the true significance of many nursery rhymes, but we learned them and said them often. I don’t hear the young ones today saying them, so I guess they are passe and no longer taught at home or school. I really enjoyed this piece of history.

  • Reply
    Gina S
    August 22, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Mama knew and recited many nursery rhymes to me before I learned to read. I like to think of the mothers who went before Mama and my grandmama. I see an unbroken line of women comforting and amusing their children.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    August 22, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Hey Tipper,
    My book quotes the rhyme this way:
    Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and
    a merry old soul was he;
    He called for his pipe in the middle of the night
    And he called for his fiddlers three.
    Now-a-days I can relate to this verse…I sometimes wake in the middle of the night. I don’t need my pipe or my fiddlers three, even though that would be nice to have some music to woo me back to sleep. Maybe this old King was having trouble sleeping in his old age too, and the smoking relaxed him as his fiddlers played and he got sleepy again!
    I learned the rhyme with the bowl when I was young and as I told back then, the bowl was to tap his tobacco in or held his tobacco, or some other smoke mixture…not food! ewwww
    Anyhow the rhyme is based on Celtic legends and appears to be written as you say, about Coel the Old due too his longevity.
    I just love these old rhymes!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…I am disappointed that Old King Cole wasn’t having a “night snack” of Cheerio’s before trying to sleep again! And yes, I also pictured him as a kindly King, so many were evil!

  • Reply
    Joyce Heishman
    August 22, 2014 at 9:08 am

    I love the poems and fairy-tales my grandmother and mother used to say. Sweet memories.

  • Reply
    jane bolden
    August 22, 2014 at 8:35 am

    Interesting! I remember this nursery rhyme from my childhood.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 22, 2014 at 7:23 am

    Tipper, I heard this rhyme as a child also. I didn’t like rhymes much because they never made sense and, in fact, still don’t.
    Yes you have a guitarist as well as a fiddler but we wont tell either of them.

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