It’s been 10 years since I bonded with my new office mate over the issue of a children’s song. It must have been a slow day in the world of microbiology editing, because we found ourselves talking about whether the greasy grimy gopher guts came in great big gobs or great green gobs. Then came the avian controversy of line 4: chicken feet, pigeon feet, or the satisfyingly generic “little dirty birdie feet”? I insisted that line 3 was “Marinated monkey meat.” Pat said, “Actually, that sounds kind of good.”
We polled the office. We called our friends. My friend Jeanne produced a variant that merged the gopher guts song with the McDonald’s parody (“Hamburgers in your face” and so forth). We were merry little amateur folklorists ’till we remembered that our business was scientific publishing–the proper spelling of the names of the biota within the gopher guts, not the songs associated with gut-based cuisine.
So I surveyed Josepha Sherman and E.K.F. Weisskopf’s great green paperback with a twinge of envy. These folks took my long-ago discussion and tuned it into a book. It’s a work of scholarship, to be sure, but it’s a lot more fun than most scholarly tomes. Like the great collection of Ozark folktales Pissing in the Snow, Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts makes telling statements about American culture even as it induces milk-out-the-nose guffaws in its readers.
The authors categorize the rhymes, song parodies, and other oral folklore of childhood into three sections: “Getting Down To Basics” (with birth, death, and all the bodily functions in between), “Dealing With Authority” (debasement of teachers, religious figures, and others in dubious positions of power over kids), and “The Commercial World” (parodies involving television, popular song, and advertising). The authors’ comments are brief and pointed; they illuminate the text and help the reader move from one selection to the next.
The selections include, when available, variants on the same idea or verse. The opening chapter contains 20 versions of “Gopher Guts.” The authors note the subversive appeal of gross-out verses, but they also point out that versions of “Gopher Guts” can also be used as anti-authority jibes or comments on a school’s food service.
But I’m making the book sound too dry, and chapter 1, in particular, is juicy. Among the side dishes found in versions of “Gopher Guts”: oldy moldy goober nuts, vulture vomit, chewed-up parakeets, barbecued baby brains, lima beans filled with glue, and evaporated monkey milk. (I think I saw those last two items at the food co-op last Saturday.)
Seriously, the book proves again and again how children confront the tough stuff of life with boldness and wit, and often by mixing the horrific with the mundane. The final chapter collects rhymes associated with Barney, the infamous purple TV-beast of doom. From a six-year-old in Westchester, N.Y., comes “I hate you, you hate me. We put Barney in a tree. Pull the trigger, hit him in the head. Whoopsy daisy Barney’s dead!” New Hampshire sixth graders produced “I love you, you love me, Barney has got H.I.V.” But I’ll stop quoting here before my editor decides I’m a bad influence on adults.
Often, childhood is about being nasty, brutish, and short. Funny how when we get our driver’s license or hold our first infant, some of us forget this; we begin to accrete the sugary sap that forms the culture’s image of infant perfection. Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts T.P.’s the trees of the Magic Kingdom. It’s an entertaining, sometimes shocking trip back to the playground.
(August House, 1995)