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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Animal Music Monday: “The Fox Went Out”

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 20, 2016

I mostly recall this carnivore’s delight from the Burl Ives version of 1956. But my father also used to sing it to us when we were small. One of my sisters remembers: “Dad once picked my up and threw me over his shoulder while that song was on, imitating the fox who flings the grey goose over his back. I was probably five years old and was wearing a skirt, which flew over my head, and was not amused. Other than that, it’s a fine song, an old folk song.” She played it for her kids in turn.

The idea of a freshly killed duck or goose “greasing” anybody’s chin has an earthiness that probably would not get past the modern sensitivity police. (But what do I know about sensitivity?  I used to sing my kids “Weile Weile Waila,” an Irish song about a woman who sticks a knife in a baby’s head.)  Versions of “The Fox” date back to 1500, and it has no doubt been sung around the barnyard by every generation since.

I love the calamitous mouthful of this stanza:

Old mother Widdle Waddle jumped out of bed,
And out of the casement she popped her head,
Crying, “The house is on fire, the grey goose is dead,
And the fox has come to the town, oh!”

And I also like an early version that gives a sympathetic role to the fox in his depredations.  (Some of that survives in the Burl Ives version.):

I haue a wyf, and sche lyethe seke;
many smale whelppis sche haue to eke;
many bonys they must pike
will they ley adowne!”

This is a more recent version by Nickel Creek, with mandolin and fiddle.

I’m going to spare you the version by Garrison Keillor, who loves the sound of his own voice the way the fox loves goose greasing his chin (but nobody else wants to share that meal).

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