4 Cute Songs That Were Originally Dark As Hell

‘Baby Shark’ isn’t as kid-friendly as you might think
4 Cute Songs That Were Originally Dark As Hell

It’s not clear why — maybe there was an influential preschool teacher somewhere who deeply hated children — but the songs you typically find on Now That’s What I Call Nap Time CDs are absolutely horrifying if you look even an inch below the surface. “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater”? That’s about wife murder. “Mary, Quite Contrary”? More like “Mary, quite enthusiastic about killing Protestants.” The less said about that London Bridge, the better.

But some nursery rhymes and old folk songs were so un-toddler-friendly that they had to be changed entirely to be palatable to today’s weak-minded babies. Such as… 

‘Baby Shark’

If you were even passingly familiar with a child in the last eight years, just the mention of the title “Baby Shark” will have your head doo-dooing for the rest of the day. But “Baby Shark” didn’t rise fully formed in 2016. It may be as many as 100 years old but certainly several decades, where it was passed around campfires and hiking trails as a detailed recounting of a shark attack. The singers listed each body part the shark ate (“Lost an arm, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo, lost a leg, doo-doo-doo-doo, lost the head, doo-doo-doo-doo”) while moving an arm out of sight, hopping on one leg or mimicking the act of losing a head, complete with screams and mimed arterial spray. Yes, really.

In some versions, the singer described ascending to heaven after rescue teams failed to resuscitate them, and we don’t know if that’s better or worse. It didn’t become a Nick Jr.-friendly singalong until children’s entertainer Johnny Only decided to record a cleaned-up version in 2011 about a nice family of sharks, which became a worldwide sensation five years later, when South Korean educational company Pinkfong released their own recording and video. So, you know, blame them.

‘The Big Rock Candy Mountains’

Even the sanitized version of Harry McClintock’s “The Big Rock Candy Mountains” is a pretty fucked-up song to play for kids, when you think about it. Trying to lure children away with the promise of large amounts of candy is never a good look, but it was originally even more sinister. It began with the introduction of a “hobo” attempting to recruit with tales of a land full of “cigarette trees,” “streams of alcohol” and whiskey lakes, because, you know, hobo.

But even this version, recorded in 1928, omits a final verse detailing the young recruit’s disillusionment with the lie of the Big Rock Candy Mountains that didn’t come to light until a copyright dispute forced McClintock to reveal it. He had apparently previously decided that we weren’t ready for that conversation, and he was right. It goes:

The punk rolled up his big blue eyes and said to the jocker, "Sandy,
I’ve hiked and hiked and wandered too, but I ain’t seen any candy
I’ve hiked and hiked till my feet are sore, and I’ll be damned if I hike any more
To be buggered sore like a hobo’s whore in the Big Rock Candy Mountains

For the non-scholars of old-timey slang, to be “buggered” was to be anally sexed. It turns out the song is explicitly about a predator promising candy to little boys so he can assault them, which is really the most timeless version of the song.

‘Oh! Susanna’

“Oh! Susanna” is another one that’s already pretty dark, with lines like “The sun so hot, I froze to death” and “When I’m dead and buried, Susanna, don’t you cry.” But at least the song that we sing now doesn’t mention any potential hate crimes. The version of the song recorded in the early 1900s and rarely thereafter includes the following verse:

I jumped aboard the telegraph and traveled down the river
Electric fluid magnified, and killed five hundred n—er
The bullgine bust, the horse ran off, I really thought I’d die
I shut my eyes to hold my breath — Susanna, don’t you cry

“Electric fluid magnified” sounds a lot more like an early 1990s alternative band than a thing that can happen, so it’s not clear exactly how 500 ethnic minorities were killed, but there they are. The verse isn’t surprising, considering the song’s composer, Stephen Foster, was such an important figure in the composition of minstrel music that his most famous memorial depicted him with a Black man playing banjo at his feet, which was moved following complaints in 2018 but not destroyed in a pretty tidy metaphor for American race relations.

‘Do Your Ears Hang Low?’

You’re here, so we’re going to assume that, as a child, you sang a naughty version of “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” that substituted “boobs” or “balls” for “ears,” but historical evidence suggests the testicular variant was probably actually first. It dates back to about 1900 and was popularized largely by World War I soldiers who sang the song to entertain themselves, because really, on the Western Front, only nads will do it. That version — which you can also recite in a Dr. Seussian cadence, for what it’s worth — went like this:

Do your balls hang low?
Do they dangle to and fro?
Can you tie them in a knot?
Can you tie them in a bow?
Do they itch when it’s hot?
Do you rest them in a pot?

Do you get them in a tangle?
Do you catch them in a mangle?
Do they swing in stormy weather?
Do they tickle with a feather?
Do they rattle when you walk?
Do they jingle when you talk?

Can you sling them on your shoulder
Like a lousy fucking soldier?
Do your balls hang low?

It also happened to be sung to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw,” aka the ice cream truck song, aka a few other titles that are too racist to publish, so it’s got the bigotry angle in addition to being filthy. Aaaaand that about fills up the card. Bingo!

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