This song is more than just a kids’ song, and has both a storied past and a sordid present. I stumbled across this completely by accident on an internet rabbit hole, as you do. It all started with a song about how to pronounce Pete Buttigieg’s name.
It’s a pretty catchy song (check it out by clicking here), and it reminded me of Saoirse Ronan’s monologue on SNL in 2017 where she teaches the audience how to pronounce her name through song. Kate McKinnon comes on and says, “Honey, the song is not as helpful as you think it is,” and after singing it together concludes with, “Of course I got it, I’m fluent in nonsense. It’s my sixth season, do you know how many raccoons I’ve played on this show?”
It’s hilarious, and it got me wondering about other songs that showcase pronunciation in silly ways. The obvious “Mairzy Doats” children’s song popped into my head, and though it isn’t teaching pronunciation persay, it’s definitely nonsense. I spent a short time searching for a song that teaches pronunciation but gave up quickly because I started searching Mairzy Doats and just… well… fell down this rabbit hole.
For starters, while the two songs mentioned above are teaching CORRECT pronunciation, Mairzy Doats is playing on a mondegreen (click that link for a history of the word mondegreen and some examples). The definition of ‘mondegreen’ according to Mirriam-Webster is: a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung. Anyone who’s ever heard Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit probably has some idea of what that can be like.
I always get really worried that links will break over time, and I’m especially worried about losing this one. It’s an article written by the son of the original songwriter of Mairzy Doats. Feel free to click through and read it there, and I’m going to screen cap it and save it for posterity here:
So this is how this story starts, and where it ends today is pretty hilarious and a little messed up considering its humble beginnings as a comedy routine.
Below are two versions of the song, the first one from Al Trace and His Silly Symphonists, and the second one that gained worldwide infamy by the Merry Macs:
Would you all believe that this silly song made it to #11 on The Billboard? To the right is page 17 of Billboard Magazine from May, 1944. There it is, snuggled right in-between Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
Now, we all know what was happening in May of 1944, but a quick reminder: Planning was beginning for D-Day, Chinese troops invaded Burma, the Battle of Monte Cassino ended in an Allied victory, and we are coming out of a period where the Soviets were liberating Crimea.
Here’s a silly song, says the radio. Here, listen to it. Please listen! It’s really silly, and it might make you laugh. War is not silly. But this song is silly.
This is where this song begins its strange dance between silly and morbid. Soldiers would sing it in the foxholes. A ship that sailed on D-Day was nick-named after the song. It was rumored that the lyrics were used as code (here’s a political cartoon from that time). It’s now included in many war music compliations and has become entangled with those memories.
For many years between the end of the war and the early 90s, the song remained in the popular vernacular as both very popular silly kids’ song and memory of gruesome war for veterans.
Then, Hollywood got its hands on it. And my goodness. It has turned into a whole new thing, a symbol of psychosis and horror.
This article from Slate tells you everything you need to know, and honestly I couldn’t even paraphrase what it says. The read is incredible (but trigger warning: the videos, especially the last, are disturbing). Essentially, this kids’ song over the last ten/twenty years has morphed into something much darker than it even was in the 40s through use of the juxtaposition of the song among people slowly going crazy (a scene from Twin Peaks), gaslighting (a scene from 36 hours), nervous breakdowns (a scene from Radio Days), and… a literal torture scene in the movie The Cell (be warned, this one is graphic).
Well, there you go. Hope you enjoyed this rabbit hole as much as I did!