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“Uncle John”

The little girls always played ring-around-a rosy, because Nellie Oleson said to. They got tired of it, but they always played it, till one day, before Nellie could say anything, Laura said, ‘Let’s play Uncle John!’ — On the Banks of Plum Creek, Chapter 21, “Nellie Oleson”

     
Like the many variations in the tune to which it is sung (“Yankee Doodle”), there are many variations in the lyrics to “Uncle John.” Lyrics were mentioned in published works as a play-song in the early 1800s, and were well-known at the time of the Little House books. An early song called “Cockie Bendie” was published in 1820, stating that it was a version of “Uncle John,” which went: “Uncle John is ill in bed, / What shall we send him? / Three good wishes and three good kisses, / And a race of ginger.” Another traditional song, “Sally Walker,” includes the verse: “Uncle John is very sick, / He goes courting night and day; / Sword and pistol by his side, / Little Sally is his bride. / He takes her by the lily white hand, / He leads her o’er the water; / Now they kiss and now they clap, / Mrs. Molly’s daughter.”

In the existing manuscript for On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder included the same lyrics as in the published version, adding a note to daughter Rose Wilder Lane, “Yes, they actually said ‘ain’t.'” She wrote about this “little girl play” that “Laura was pushed into the ring while Nellie was pulled into the circle and the song was repeated. The first name anyone called being the one to stand inside the ring.” Since the Walnut Grove boys and girls apparently played separate games, Laura Ingalls’ friends may have not sung any additional verses.

One version of instructions for the game are as follows: The players circle around to the music and suddenly squat down at the words “Governor’s daughter.” The last to stoop selects the boy or girl who is his or her favorite; they enter the circle; and the second verse is sung (shown below) with their names inserted at the proper places. The second verse is a pretend marriage ceremony – quite similar to lyrics in “Sally Walker” – and it reflects early traditional marriage practices where guests circled the bride and groom in song. Today, the “first dance” of a wedding couple is performed while the guests are “around” them.

UNCLE JOHN IS VERY SICK (one version)


1. Uncle John is very sick,
What shall we send him?
Three good wishes, three good kisses,
And a slice of ginger.
What shall we send it in?
In a piece of paper.
Paper is not good enough,
But in a golden saucer.
Who shall we send it by?
By the Gov’nor’s daughter,
Take her by the lily white hand,
And lead her o’er the water.


2. Harry — , so they say,
Goes a-courting night and day,
Sword and pistol by his side,
And Susie — to be his bride.
Take her by the lily white hand,
Lead her o’er the water,
Here’s a kiss and there’s a kiss
For Mister —‘s daughter.
Who shall be his bride?
Mister —‘s daughter.
Take her by the lily white hand,
And lead her o’er the water.

UNCLE JOHN (from On the Banks of Plum Creek)


Uncle John is sick abed
What shall we send him?
A piece of pie, a piece of cake,
Apple and dumpling!
What shall we send it in?
A golden saucer.
Who shall we send it by?
The governor’s daughter.
If the governor’s daughter ain’t at home,
Who shall we send it by?

CLICK HERE to listen.

   

       

     

“Uncle John” (BPC 21)
     “Uncle John is sick abed”