Features | Spring 2016
Ted with his grandchildren. (photo by Grady Bautista)

Reuse, Recycle, Rejoice

Is it something understood on a deeper level than we know? Children put new words to the tunes around them. Nothing surprising. Mature folk artists always do that. But children can do it with abandon and creative effect. And I assume not too much calculation. If their work circulates, it becomes refined through community engagement.  

I have never forgotten the three-year-old singing,

Row, row, row your boat gently down the dream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a stream.

The switch of the rhymed nouns made me rethink the song and learn something from the example.

Remember when, in the Pledge of Allegiance, “the Republic for which it stands” became “for rich it stands?” Or as my mom used to say, “for Richard Stands,” whoever he may be. We don’t accept everything we’re told or sung, right?

I think the creative juices often flow when there’s something a bit upsetting in what’s being served. Or it feels exaggerated, incomprehensible, or untrue—something that could benefit from a bit of fixing and fussing.

Over forty years ago, while I traveled through Iowa conducting music programs, a little girl shared a song she said she made up. I may have asked the children for any songs they could teach me. I forget. But I can’t forget what she, a second grader, sang. It was the words of the McDonald’s song, taken from the commercial and sung to the melody of “Down By the Riverside”: “McDonald’s is your kind of place / a hap hap happy place…”

She proudly sang it HER way: “McDonald’s is your kind of place / Hamburgers in your face,” and on and on it went. I immediately committed this song to memory and took to the next town in my tour. There, another kid stepped up and proclaimed the classic line folk song collectors know all too well: “That’s not the way it goes!” He sang, “McDonald’s is your kind of place / They serve you rattlesnakes!” Wouldn’t you know it, when I reached Wisconsin, a teacher told me her students were all about that song, and she shared yet other lyrics.

I began compiling a composite of the song to share wherever I traveled, editing out the duplicate lines and making it two verses long. Soon I had collected a Burger King and then a Jack in the Box parody, completing what I call now my “Hamburger Trilogy.”  

McDonald’s is your kind of place
Hamburgers in your face
French fries ’tween your toes
Pickles up your nose
Ketchup running down my back
I want my money back!
Before I have a heart attack

McDonald’s is your kind of place
They serve you rattlesnakes
They take your parking place
And steal your license plate
They serve you drippy shakes
That come from polluted lakes
McDonald’s is your kind of place

Burn the pickle, burn the lettuce
Shut up, lady, don’t upset us
All we ask is that you let us
Have it OUR way
Have it our way, have it our way
At “Bugger” King

Walk in the door there’s a roach on the floor
At Jack in the Box
Look in your shake there’s a green slimy snake
At Jack in the Box
Walk to the stand and make your demand
At Jack in the Box
Eat up the fries and lick off the flies
At Jack in the Box

These creations are part of a great tradition. Pete Seeger recorded a kids’ Pepsi-Cola parody that was floating around at the time on his album Folk Songs for Young People (“Pepsi Cola la hits the spot / Ties your belly in a knot!”). The tune used for the commercial was “Do Ya Ken John Peel.” Didn’t Michael Cooney record one about the chocolate syrup Bosco (“I hate Bosco! / It’s bad for you and me. / Mama puts some in my milk to try and poison me”) as well as a Comet cleanser parody (“Comet! Will make your teeth turn green! / Comet! It tastes like gasoline”) set to the “Colonel Bogey March”?

Parodies are power. They reclaim narratives. Besides commercials with their jingles, there are the ubiquitous holiday songs that commonly get the treatment. Authority figures get their comeuppance in often dramatic ways. Pete didn’t hold back when he recorded these words to “Frére Jacques”:

Mayrowana, mayrowana
College kids are making it
High school kids are taking it
Why can’t we?

He called that album Young vs Old. You can bet some versions had teachers referenced too.

One of my favorite finds was in a Boston preschool. The children were singing the freedom song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Joan Baez had recorded its last line as “Gonna build a brand new world.” I’d always known it as “Marchin’ up to freedom land.” How many other ways this zipper had been sung, I can only guess. The kids I was with that day sang, less dramatically, “Marching to the freedom BAND.” It reinforced for me a provocative adage a Vietnam vet shared with me from his term overseas: “We don’t struggle to be free. We struggle because we ARE free.”

I bet as we listen to children we find they have lots of songs they sing to themselves and each other that they may not know we’d like to hear. My grandson, Izeah, was two years old when he heard me singing the refrain to “Sourwood Mountain” with “a diddle um day.” It wasn’t enough for him. It became “I diddle all day” and morphed into “I did a long day.” Not too shabby.

Keep those lines of communication open.