Appalachia Rhymes

This Old Man

CHILDHOOD RHYMES

This old man, he played one,
He played knick-knack with his thumb,
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played two,
He played knick-knack with my shoe,
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played three,
He played knick-knack on my knee,
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played four,
He played knick-knack at my door,
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played five,
He played knick-knack with his hive,
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played six,
He played knick-knack with his sticks,
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played seven,
He played knick-knack up in heaven,
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played eight,
He played knick-knack on my gate,
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played nine,
He played knick-knack rise and shine,
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, he played ten,
He played knick-knack on his hen,
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

As kids we loved to sing this rhyme. I was always a little jealous of the kids who could remember every line, at least I could always chime in on the repetitive parts. The rhyme has traditionally been used to help children learn to count. It dates from the nineteenth century.

The repeating words sound like nonsense words seemingly added in to increase the rhythmic quality of the rhyme. However the book Heavy Words Lightly Thrown The Reason Behind The Rhyme written by Christ Roberts, tells us the words actually do have meaning. In 1673, knick-knack was used to describe furniture or a keepsake and is still used today to describe small figurines, photos, pieces of art, etc. In 1881 paddy-whack meant an Irishman (a derogatory term). We know giving a dog a bone is a euphemism for giving someone something to pacify them and rolling home was once used to describe someone who ‘rolled’ from drinking as they headed for home.

Wikipedia has this interesting entry about the rhyme:

A similar version was included in Cecil Sharp and Sabine Baring-Gould’s English Folk-Songs for Schools, published in 1906. It was collected several times in England in the early twentieth century with a variety of lyrics. In 1948 it was included by Pete Seeger and Ruth Crawford in their American Folk Songs for Children and recorded by Seeger in 1953. It received a boost in popularity when it was adapted for the 1958 film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by composer Malcolm Arnold as “The Children’s Marching Song”, which led to hit singles for Cyril Stapleton and Mitch Miller. In popular culture Columbo whistles this tune in almost every episode. It also appears as a motif in the musical score.

Tipper

*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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13 Comments

  • Reply
    Patty
    August 3, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    In Oklahoma, we sang, He played nine. He played Nick-Nack on your behind.

  • Reply
    RB
    June 20, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    I remember one of our Sisters loving to sing this song. I think it was Sister Pattie. I’m sure one of our Sibs will let me know if I’m right, or wrong, on that.
    God bless.
    RB
    <><

  • Reply
    Gina S
    June 20, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    My Grandpa, born and raised in Lincoln County, taught me this rhyme before I started school. I shared it with my children and several of the grands. I remember the Mitch Miller version from primary school. My mother had several friends who referred to small figures as either knick-
    knacks or what-nots. I haven’t heard those terms in years. Mama worked full time as a nurse. She couldn’t abide little dust-catchers as she called them.

  • Reply
    Granny Norma
    June 20, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    We said “on my spine” for number nine. It’s very interesting how many British nursery rhymes had hidden meanings in times gone by. Sometimes they were mocking, like this one but sometimes they had a much darker meaning. Apparently people didn’t have any freedom of speech and therefore cloaked their protests in children’s rhymes. Do you remember how the Queen of Hearts was so angry with Alice that she screamed “Off with her head!” for little provocation? Well, if you were a commoner you could very well lose your head for criticizing the royalty. “Mistress Mary” was a blatant reference to Bloody Mary (daughter of Henry VIII) and her persecution and torture of Protestants. The “Three Blind Mice” were Protestants who were accused of plotting against her and were burned at the stake. Jack and Jill were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who were beheaded. Humpty Dumpty was the humpbacked King Richard III who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field despite his huge armies. Everyone knows that “Ring Around the Rosey” refers to the plague. Even Mother Goose was a witch! The first amendment of the United States Constitution gives us freedom of speech. Treasure it!

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    June 20, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Tipper,
    I was playing some gospel, bluegrass
    songs today and ran across “Stormy
    Waters” by the Pressley Girls. I was
    very impressed…the longer the song
    went, the better they got! …Ken

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    June 20, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Tipper: This ‘saying’ was one of our favorite in the first grade. We would jump rope and sing it until the child who was jumping missed a step – then the next child would get a turn at jumping the rope. What sweet memories!
    Eva Nell
    p.s. HOPE YOU HAVE A BIG CROUD TONIGHT!

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    June 20, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Tipper,
    I don’t think any of my group knowed all
    the lines either, but thanks for all the
    background. It amazed me that all these
    childhood rhymes came from such earlier
    times and countries.
    I’m excited about the Blairsville thing
    tonite…Ken

  • Reply
    Tamela
    June 20, 2014 at 9:47 am

    This old man has been sung in our family for quite some time. I remember learning it from my great-grandmother and grandmother on my father’s side complete with hand motions:
    “knick-knack” – like knocking on a door;
    “paddy wack” – like dusting off hands to show you have completed a chore
    “give the dog a bone” – mimic throwing a bone over you shoulder to get a dog to stop chasing you
    “rolling home” – make hands do a tumbling motion
    . . . and appropriate hand motions for each verse.
    Our verses are slightly different: Nine was taught to me as “on the line” as though you had a stick and were hitting a clothesline but somewhere along the way it got changed to “on my hind” like teasingly giving someone a switching.
    Ten was “once again” which meant we sang it over and over and over getting sillier and more exaggerated with our motions each time. I can just see my parents eyes rolling when my sister and I started the song on a car trip – we never did it very loud, silly, or long in the car. Dad saw to that!!

  • Reply
    Shirla
    June 20, 2014 at 9:18 am

    Now we know what a paddy-whack is! Yes, we sang it all the way through with a few words changed here and there. The old man never played knick-knack “with”, he played “on”. Seems like he played nine with a knick-knack on his behind in the eastern KY version of the song.

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    June 20, 2014 at 7:48 am

    I remember it well. Interesting!

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    June 20, 2014 at 7:36 am

    I remember it. I don’t remember singing a bunch of verses, though. I remember it mostly as a song that played on the radio for a while, performed by Mitch Miller.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    June 20, 2014 at 7:27 am

    Wow, dear Tipper! What a piece of research you’ve done here–and all to help us know what was “behind” the rhyme/game I would say nearly all of us “kids” in the Appalachians sang, heard, played, learned to count by doing! Yes! We quoted and sang this in Choestoe! And I had not thought about it in years. The very next time any of my great grandchildren come to visit or I visit them, you can be assured we’ll do “This Old Man”. Thank you for reminding us!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    June 20, 2014 at 7:22 am

    Wow, Tip, who would have thought this children’s rhyme could have so many hidden secrets in it. I thought it was just a simple song for kids.
    I remember the rhyme from my childhood but I don’t think I ever knew it all the way through.

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