Josepha Sherman
& T.K.F Weisskopf,
Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: The
Subversive Folklore of Childhood

(August House, 1995)

Caution advised: you may not want to read the first part of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts while eating, since Josepha Sherman and T.K.F Weisskopf present a smorgasbord of the ghastly recipe. Beyond that, however, you won't want to stop reading this fascinating compendium of the childhood rhymes with which children in North America all grew up.

Sherman and Weisskopf spent three years collecting childhood rhymes in their many variants from a variety of sources, and it is striking to see how many of the rhymes have survived over the decades. The authors contend that these rhymes sprang out of an inner need to defy taboos on subjects such as sex, birth, death and authority. These were topics which were generally considered not up for discussion between adults and children, and the rhymes transformed them into objects of mockery through child's play. Indeed, many of these taboos were broken out of earshot of adults.

The book is divided into three sections: Getting Down to Basics, Dealing With Authority and The Commercial World. Sherman and Weisskopf get down to basics indeed, kicking off with "greasy grimy gopher guts" and what seems to be an unlimited supply of variations (although none were quite the one I remember). Disgusting items to eat (including worms to accompany self-pitying bouts of "Nobody loves me") give way to other ishy-squishy topics ("I'm looking over my dead dog Rover" and "Ooey Gooey was a worm," among others) before progressing to the nitty-gritty of sex, pregnancy and birth. This chapter includes rhymes such as the veering-towards-dirty "Miss Lucy had a steamboat/The steamboat had a bell" and the taunting "X and Y sitting in a tree/K-I-S-S-I-N-G," as well as some more explicit rhymes. Finally, no section on the basics would be complete without myriad rhymes about bodily functions, illness and death in which whatever can drip or ooze or burst will do so.

The rhymes contained in the section on authority start off with some defiance of parental authority and the ways children find to insult their friends. It moves on to school, church and camp, and while the rhymes about school were familiar to me -- I know I sang some of them as a child -- it occurred to me that none of these would be tolerated in the current aftermath of school shootings across the country. Today, a child who sings about shooting his teacher could find himself in deep trouble indeed, and the decades-old defiance of organized authority takes on a different complexion when it becomes reality. This section concludes with rhymes about politics and about holidays, most notably Christmas.

The final section takes on the irresistible impulse to parody commercial jingles and television theme songs, with an entire chapter devoted to songs about Barney. The level of animosity toward the purple dinosaur is striking, coupled with an interesting twist: rather than breaking social taboos about which adults have been traditionally silent, some of the rhymes reflect the trend toward educating children on issues such as AIDS and sexual abuse.

Nearly 50 pages of notes follow the text, and the further exploration into the rhymes and their sources is meaty and thought-provoking. Finally, a bibliography rounds out the book and offers a good range of sources to readers who want to pursue the topic further.

Sherman and Weisskopf are both thorough and meticulous in their research, and the book is a valuable and insightful addition to folklore in general. Beyond that, it's a wonderful and fascinating nostalgia trip for adults, especially when one realizes that first, these rhymes are very old and second, they continue today in some form or another.

In that light, I think it's only appropriate to end with a sing-a-long. Ready? "Great big globs of greasy grimy gopher guts...."

[ by Donna Scanlon ]



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