Appalachia Rhymes

Two Dead Boys Got Up To Fight

One bright day in the middle of the night two dead boys got up to fight

One bright day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.

Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.

The deaf policeman heard the noise,
Came and shot the two dead boys.

If you don’t believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man, he saw it too.

————–

When Paul and I were young we went around saying the little ditty above to each other. The words have a catchy rhythm when you say them aloud-but mostly we liked the silliness of the poem. Each line is a total impossibility-and as the poem moves along the impossibilities get larger and larger.

A few weeks ago I woke up with the poem on my mind. As a child I never gave the origins of the poem a second thought. A quick google search told me lots of people-from all parts of the country-remembers the poem from their childhood too.

The British Columbia Folklore Society has an entire page dedicated to the poem One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night, and offers this information about the poem:

“As to the history of “One Fine Day…” it appears to have evolved from tangle-worded couplets that have been popular in Miracle Plays and the folklore and folksongs of the British Isles since the Middle Ages. Tiddy, in his book The Mummers’ Play [1923, Oxford, Oxford University Press], cites the earliest known example of this type of humour as appearing in the manuscript of Land of Cockaigne about 1305 [Tiddy 1923, p. 116] and a 15th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library [MS Engl. poet. e. 1: c.1480] includes four lines that are directly related to our rhyme.

In one form or another the modern version of Two Dead Boys, including many of the orphan pieces found below, has been collected from children in playgrounds since the middle of the 19th century. A detailed study with examples collected throughout the British Isles since the turn of the 20th century can be found in Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren [1959, Oxford. Oxford University Press, pp. 24-29].”

As with any poem or song that’s been around for a few generations, there are numerous variations to the poem One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night. The version of the poem Paul and I remember obviously deviates from the beginning line-where we said “one bright day in the middle of the night” the original started the line with “one fine day.”

Have you ever heard the poem?

Tipper

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39 Comments

  • Reply
    Jennifer Collins
    September 16, 2020 at 3:36 am

    I cant recall where exactly i learned this poem but I remember it from early childhood as the following….One fine day in the middle of the night two dead boys got up to fight. Back to bsck, they faced each other. Sword in hand they shot each other. A deaf policeman heard the noise and came and killed those two dead boys. Im almost 47 and lived in Kentucky as a very young child. I know my mum wouldnt have taught me this. Wish I could recall where I learned it.

  • Reply
    Hazy Hartman
    June 30, 2020 at 9:36 pm

    The Barefoot Boy With Shoes On [b.Asa Martin]

    It was midnight on the ocean
    Not a streetcar was in sight
    The sun was shining brightly
    And it rained all day that night
    It was a summer’s day in winter
    And the rain was snowing fast
    And a barefoot boy with shoes on
    Stood sitting in the grass

    And the cows were making cowslips (A yellow flower)
    And the bells were ringing wet
    The bumble bees were making bums
    And smoking cigarettes
    A man went in a stable
    And came out a little hoarse
    He jumped upon his golfstick
    And rode all around the course

    While the organ peeled potatoes
    Lard was rendered by the choir
    The sexton rang a dish-rag (official who maintains a church)
    Someone set the church on fire
    Holy smokes the preacher shouted
    In the rain he lost his hair
    Now his head resembles heaven
    Cause there sin’t no partin’ there.

    it was midnight on the ocean
    Not a horsecart was in sight
    I went into a drugstore
    To get myself a light
    The man behind the counter
    Was a lady old and gray
    Who used to peddle shoestrings
    On the road to Mandalay

    My husband’s dead the lady said
    Her eyes were dry with tears
    She put her head between her feet
    And stood that way for years
    Her children six were orphans
    Except one tiny tot
    Who lived in a house across the street
    Above a vacant lot

    It was evening and the sunrise
    was just setting in the west;
    And the fishes in the treetops
    were all cuddled in their nests.
    As the wind was blowing bubbles,
    lightning shot from left to right;
    Everything that you could see
    had been hidden out of sight

    As I gazed through the oaken door
    A whale went drifting by
    It’s six legs hanging in the air
    So I kissed her goodbye.
    This story has a moral
    As you can plainly see
    Don’t mix your gin with whiskey
    On the deep and dark blue sea.

  • Reply
    US Marine
    February 5, 2020 at 5:28 am

    My Dad taught me this poem in the 70’s and I recited it goofing around with my wife. She was raised in California and had never heard it before. Must be that fine education out there in the land of milk and honey. Thanks to everyone for sharing their memories of how they learned it and where they’re from. Very interesting to see the different variations.

    • Reply
      Amy
      May 22, 2020 at 11:18 pm

      My grandmother was a second grade school teacher in the 1950s. I have one of her old textbooks and on one of the pages is a poem called the “backwards rhyme” by anonymous.

      One bright day in the middle of the night two dead boys got up to fight.
      Back to back they faced each other drew their swords and shot each other.
      A deaf policeman heard this noise, came out and shot the two dead boys.
      If you do not believe this lie is true ask the blind man he saw it too.

      It’s a Nonsense Poem and maybe goes back as far as the 13th century. There are many variations to it.

      My favorite part of that old textbook is that poem and that it says “one day we will land on the moon”.

  • Reply
    Gwen
    December 19, 2019 at 1:40 am

    My dad recited this to my brother and me when we were growing up. Dad grew up in Florida, North Carolina and Texas, but we lived in Mississippi. His version was a little different, and also left out the third stanza.

    One dark night when the sun was shining bright,
    Two dead men got up to fight.
    They faced each other back to back,
    Drew their swords and shot each other.
    If you don’t believe my story’s true,
    Ask the blind man, he saw it too.

    • Reply
      Gwen
      December 19, 2019 at 1:42 am

      just remembered there were two lines before the “one dark night.” It went as follows:

      Ladies and gentlemen, hobos and tramps,
      I come before you to stand behind you
      to tell you something I know nothing about.
      One dark night when the sun….

  • Reply
    Sarah J Lutz
    November 23, 2019 at 10:07 pm

    I can remember my father reciting this poem. He began it with “One fine day” and left out the third stanza

  • Reply
    Jessie
    February 9, 2019 at 7:56 pm

    @Susi pentico

    The Borough picture house in Wallsend

    I went to The Borough tomorrow
    I got a front seat at the back
    I fell up from the stalls to the circle
    And broke a front bone in my back

  • Reply
    Mary Webster
    October 14, 2017 at 11:00 am

    I remember it as One dark night when the sun was shining bright, then the rest was the same. I have been trying to remember it all, so, thanks for posting.

  • Reply
    Tipper
    April 23, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Mary-thank you for sharing the hearse song lyrics. It’s been years since I thought about the creepy words : )

  • Reply
    Mary gambrell
    April 23, 2017 at 12:43 am

    Have you ever stopped to think when a hearse goes by,that you may be the next to die?You will be wrapped in a bloody sheet, and buried about six feet.you will be alright for a week or so,then your casket gets a hole.maggots Will crawl in and out, playing pitter patter on your scalp.they will eat your eyes,and your nose,and the jelly between your toes,and your left without a spoon,so use a straw.

  • Reply
    denneal ross
    March 28, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    I remember my dad telling us this poem when I was real little. That was in the 60’s. He told us he learned it as a kid. Every great once in a while I think of it but didn’t know how it went. Now I can tell it to my grandchildren and later hopefully they will tell their grandchildren too. Wonderful childhood memory.

  • Reply
    tom
    October 19, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Jimi Hendrix put a version of this rhyme to music in the early 1970s. He called the song, Strange Things.

    • Reply
      William
      September 24, 2020 at 2:06 pm

      I heard this poem from my dad in the 50’s In Oregon. He and his parents were born there
      His version started with:
      One bright day in the middle of night

  • Reply
    Mary
    August 17, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    I was just thinking about this today. I remember the one that you mention in your blog. My sister taught it to me, but I don’t know where she learned it.

  • Reply
    Sarah
    February 2, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    My mother told me this poem ever since I was little and I have always enjoyed its backwardsness. This is how I remember it;
    In the middle of the night
    The sun was shining bright
    Two dead boys got up to fight
    Back to back they faced each other
    Drew their swords and shot one another
    The deaf policeman heard the noise
    And came to kill the two dead boys
    If you believe this lie so true
    Ask the blind woman, he saw it too
    My mother told me she read it in an English text book back in grade school and I have always wondered what the original version was like. But so far I like hers the best!

  • Reply
    Mrs. K
    October 27, 2013 at 2:10 am

    Oh my gosh, my husband introduced me to this years ago and sings it every now and then. In his version it goes like this:
    One bright day in the middle of the night,
    two dead boys got up to fight.
    Back to back they faced each other,
    drew their swords and shot each other.
    A deaf policeman heard the noise,
    came and killed the two dead boys.
    If you don’t believe this story is true,
    ask the blind woman, she saw it too.
    This one differs only in the last line – a blind women – which I didn’t see at the folklore page. My husband was born in Brooklyn, grew up on Long Island, and learned this at camp in Connecticut during the 1950s.
    Another very interesting tidbit!

  • Reply
    dolores
    October 26, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    I have never seen nor heard this poem before reading it today. It does take many twists and turns; keeps the reader/listener guessing. I liked it!

  • Reply
    Paul Certo
    October 26, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    I recall that from when I was a kid, but I haven’t thought of it in decades. I probably wondered where it came from, but never tried to learn more. I can’t recall how long it’s been since I heard or recited it, but it was common “back in the day”!

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    October 26, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Tipper,
    That’s cute! But I don’t think I’ve
    ever heard it before. This kind of
    stuff is perfect since we’re nearing
    all them Spooks and Goblins.
    I’m going to repeat this one to all
    my granddaughters, bet they ain’t
    heard it either…Ken

  • Reply
    Sarah Bryan
    October 26, 2013 at 11:43 am

    There’s a great version of this recited by, I think, Hattie Stoneman, on one of the early Ernest and Hattie Stoneman/Eck Dunford records. I think it’s “An Exhibition at Possum Trot School.” Not sure of the date, late ’20s or early ’30s…

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 26, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Tipper,
    I sure did enjoy the memory of this poem and your research! I forgot to tell you that. Was it the season that got you to thinking of the poem?
    I have anothe epitaph for you!
    In heavy traffic he would never postpone
    A single call on his cell phone.
    So listen carefully and I vow
    He’s still asking, “Can you hear me now?”
    This one ain’t mine, I got it off the All About Halloween website!LOL
    Thanks Tipper,
    It is double “mite airish” here this morning. Yesterday we had a frost and hard freeze with another one last night even colder. Usually we start the season with a few scattered frosts in the area before a hard freese…A skiff of snow was seen at Mount La Counte…Oh how I would have loved to been in that cabin overlooking that! Oh well, I susupect we will have ours soon enough!

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 26, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Tipper,
    I remember the poem! It has been many years! I remember a teacher telling us to figure out the poem in truth…
    For instance…”One bright day in the middle of the night!”
    That could mean the story took place in the great North Alaskan continent and the boys were Eskimos and for months the sun shines at night just like a bright day!
    “Two dead boys got up to fight!”
    Their last name could have been,
    Dead! Thus Billy Dead and Joe Dead!
    “Back to back they faced each other!”
    They were playing this scenario looking in a mirrow!
    “The deaf policeman heard the noise came and shot the two dead boys!”
    The policeman was “daft” not deaf..meaning a little off his rocker..using his night stick to give the boys a shot to the head!
    “If you don’t believe me this lie is true!” Meaning the story is a lie but the word meaning is true!
    “Ask the blind man he saw it too.”
    The blind man, walks the streets in England selling window blinds!
    And that’s the end of the story!
    There are always different tales as it is passed down from generation to generation or eye witness to eye witness! LOL
    Thanks Tipper….and my 6th grade teacher…

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 26, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Your post today reminds me of a little ditty my father used to sing. I can’t remember the whole thing, just the tune and one phrase from it, “gonna buy me a five dollar diller dollar secondary roller binder, to wear with my old Jew Jenkins.”
    I am hoping that one of the litterateurs who frequent this site will recognize it and relate the rest of the song to me.
    PS: Google yielded me exactly nothing.

  • Reply
    Susi Pentico
    October 26, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Now I am wondering if anyone can remember it’s mate.
    The one about going to the theatre and falling up to b reak his back. Funny both have been wandering around my brain lately. I was told they came out of the readers that my parents and siblings read in school in the 1920s and my Uncle had the early readers his parents had and there was many like this in them. 1880’s or so.

    • Reply
      Jessie
      February 9, 2019 at 7:52 pm

      It concerned ‘The Borough’, a picture house in Wallsend:

      I went to The Borough tomorrow
      I got a front seat at the back
      I fell from the stalls to the circle
      And broke a front bone in my back

      6 years later lol sorry. Just ramndomly been reciting “one bright day in the…” poem for the past few month and stumbled upon this x

  • Reply
    Charline
    October 26, 2013 at 10:28 am

    My grandmother, who grew up in a rural area outside Birmingham, AL, recited this (the ‘bright day’ version) to us with relish!I told it to my kids, but this reminds me to quote it to my grandson.

  • Reply
    Lola Howard
    October 26, 2013 at 10:05 am

    I’ve heard this for so many years .

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    October 26, 2013 at 9:22 am

    I can’t remember the first time I heard this ditty but I always heard the variation; Early one morning, Late one night, Two dead soldiers got in a fight

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    October 26, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Amazing how things are passed down through the generations. It has always intrigued me.

  • Reply
    Jerry
    October 26, 2013 at 8:20 am

    I live in Arkansas. My father taught me this poem when I was a kid about 65 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s been many years since I heard anyone say it. We need to keep it going.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 26, 2013 at 8:10 am

    I remember that little poem from childhood. The one I remembered started “One fine day”. I have no recollection where I heard it not even what state we lived in when I heard it but since most of my childhood was not in North Carolina I am assuming it must have been in Texas, Georgia, or Tennessee.
    It’s funny that I recognized it right away and I haven’t thought of it in more years that I care to count.
    I recall that it was the absurdity of it that appealed to me!

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    October 26, 2013 at 8:01 am

    I remember this silly poem well. I had forgotten about it until you reminded me.

  • Reply
    Bob Dalsemer
    October 26, 2013 at 7:55 am

    My Dad used to recite that to my sister and I with a few changes. His first line was “Twas on a dark and stormy night.” And he didn’t include the last two lines.

  • Reply
    Carol
    October 26, 2013 at 7:39 am

    I had totally forgotten this rhyme. I think we used to jump rope to the rhythm of saying it.

  • Reply
    TimMc
    October 26, 2013 at 7:38 am

    Nope, never heard it,, but know some folks that would try to make you believe it… Ever heard the phrase “If you don’t believe the truth there’s only one thing left to believe”?

  • Reply
    Judy Mincey
    October 26, 2013 at 7:24 am

    Golly, hadn’t thought of that in “forever”. We said Bright, also. Haven’t a clue where we learned it.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    October 26, 2013 at 7:20 am

    Oh gosh that brings back memories, my mother used to recite it to us when we were little. Are there more verses than those you wrote down?

  • Reply
    Dan McCarter
    October 26, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Thanks for posting this. I learned this when I was a kid growing up in the Smokies

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