This song was first recorded by the Bahamian Blind Blake and his Royal Victoria Hotel Calypsos, but a couple of the verses were current when I was in elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Actually, to be strictly accurate, one of his verses (the sheep one) was current in my school, and another (the bear one) was current in my school but not on Blake’s recording, and I added it, because it fit.
Dave Van Ronk often argued that the only true example of folk music in his repertoire was “Shaving Cream,” a mildly dirty ditty he’d learned as a kid in Brooklyn, because unlike all the songs he’d learned from recordings or his fellow folksingers, it had been learned informally through the oral tradition in his home community and was the sort of music people in that community (in particular, pre-teen boys) sang for their own pleasure and entertainment.
When I’ve taught folk music classes, I regularly ask the students to sing or recite lyrics they’ve learned from friends and never heard on a recording or seen in print or video. Almost everybody has a few, and they tend to be mildly dirty — or sometimes not so mildly — in part because dirty lyrics are fun, and in part because the clean children’s rhymes get disseminated by other means.
I first heard this song from a Seattle street musician named Baby Gramps. It was the summer of 1982, as best I can figure, and I’d hitchhiked out west and was wending my way to Vancouver, Canada, including a week or so playing on the street in Seattle. I did ok, and met a surprising number of people I’d known elsewhere (including a woman I’d known in Pakistan and one from Cambridge who’d almost led me astray in my innocent youth), but nothing to the crowds Gramps gathered. He was a local phenomenon, and I recall several dozen people sitting on a patch of grass and listening as he sat on a chair and ran through something like a full set.
That set included this song, and I loved it and went up to him afterwards and asked if he could give me the words. He grumbled, “No, I think of that as my own song and don’t want other people doing it.” I replied that it sounded to me like a Blind Blake song — Gramps had kept the basic Bahamian rhythms, and it reminded me of the Blake songs I’d heard from Van Ronk (“Yas, Yas, Yas“) and Paul Geremia (“Jones, Oh Jones“). He grumbled, “Yeah, maybe that’s where I heard it…” but continued to demur.
Which, in the long run, may have been a good thing, since it pushed me to hunt up the Blind Blake record. But at the time I thought he was being an asshole, and ever since have made a point of cheerfully passing on any song I know to anyone else who wants to learn it. Because, much as I may like having a great song associated with me, if I can’t make my version special that’s my own fault, and I didn’t write any of this stuff, so what possible right do I have to treat it like my personal property? Which said, Gramps is a good musician and did a really nice version of this, and that’s where I first heard it, and it’s a charming little ditty if ever there was one, and I found the Blake album easily enough, and all is well. So hats off to him, and thanks.