The well-known children’s nursery rhyme, I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, has been sung to kids for generations. It’s a nonsensical song about an old lady who first swallows a fly (presumably by accident), so she then swallows a spider to catch the fly.
The pattern continues, as the lady swallows increasingly large animals, each to catch the one that she swallowed previously. However, when she finally tries to swallow a horse, it brings about her demise! The bizarre lyrics seem to make no sense at all, defying all logic when they claim she swallowed a whole cow, but a touch of reality is injected when she dies while struggling to swallow a horse.
As with a lot of children’s nursery rhymes and songs, it doesn’t need to be logical. The catchy, sing-along tune is enough to ensure I Know an Old Lady is passed down through the generations.
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The highly respected vocalist, Burl Ives, recorded the rhyme as a folk song, I Know an Old Lady, on Brunswick Records in 1953. While this may be commercial suicide for many of today’s popular singers, when it appeared on his album, Folk Songs Dramatic and Humorous, no-one batted an eyelid!
Famous for his role as Big Daddy in the cult 1958 film, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the actor’s quirky side was unleashed – he released other folk songs at a similar time. He also released albums of children’s songs, such as Mother Goose Songs in 1949 and Tubby the Tuba in 1950.
Beginning with the words, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. I don’t know why she swallowed a fly — perhaps she’ll die!”, the ditty was co-written by Canadian folk singer and musician Alan Mills and lyricist Rose Bonnem. The first time it appeared in print was in a collection of nursery rhymes published in the book, Hoosier Folklore, in December 1947.
While it’s not unusual to swallow a fly, in the second verse the narrator describes what the lady did next. She made the rather odd decision to deliberately eat a spider! The narrator proclaims, “There was an old lady who swallowed a spider, that wriggled and wiggled and tiggled inside her. She swallowed the spider to catch the fly. I don’t know why she swallowed a fly — perhaps she’ll die!”
This style of rhyme and nonsense song is known as “cumulative”, because the original line is continually repeated by the narrator, while other lines are added along the way. The lyrics describe the progression from fly to spider, followed by a bird to eat the spider and a cat to eat the bird.
It gets even more bizarre when she swallows a dog to eat the cat and then a cow to eat the dog! Not only is a cow considerably bigger than an old lady, but it is also herbivorous, so the chances of it eating a dog are pretty slim! The horse is the final animal that the old lady swallows, in the mistaken belief that it will eat the cow!
By this time, it is so far into the realms of the ridiculous that there’s no return, so other than eating something bigger, like a hippo or an elephant, the narrator has nowhere to go. He decides to kill off the old lady, because she ate the horse. Apparently, eating a whole cow had no ill effects, whatsoever!
Critics have agreed there’s no meaning behind the lyrics – other than maybe being a cautionary tale to seek medical help when you have a problem, rather than dosing yourself up with strange and dangerous home remedies!
The song has also found its way into modern culture and has been adapted into a rather freaky children’s stage musical, written by Steven Lee and performed by The People’s Theatre Company. It was most recently staged at the Brewery Arts Centre, in Cumbria, in September 2019.
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