Polly Put the Kettle On

Polly Put the Kettle On

Polly, put the kettle on,
Kettle on, kettle on,
Polly, put the kettle on,
We’ll all take tea.

(Click here for a PDF version of the music) * (Play MP3 instrumental)

Both the text and the tune of this are ancient and have a complex history. The tune, under the title “Jenny’s Bawbee,” is still used as a “Tea Call” in some regiments in the British army. Herd seems to have known “Jenny’s Bawbee” in 1776.

The origin of the lyrics is uncertain, though pretty definitely British. Peter and Iona Opie believe it was “clearly the rage in London” around 1810. Dickens uses the phrase “Polly put the kettle on” (in the mouth of a parrot!) in chapter 17 of Barnaby Rudge (1841). Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English declares this to have been a catch phrase around 1870.

The song was known in America at least as early as 1903, when W. W. Newell filed it as #124 in his Games and Songs of American Children. He calls it a round, titles it “Housekeeping,” and files it in the chapter “Certain Games of Very Little Girls.” His tune differs in note values, but not in timing, from that shown here. He does not describe the game played with the song.

Source: This is an interesting case, because Laura Ingalls Wilder quotes it — sort of. In On the banks of Plum Creek, chapter 41, “Christmas Eve,” Pa Ingalls sings and plays two stanzas about his girls, the first being
Mary put the dishes on,
The dishes on, the dishes on,
Mary put the dishes on,
We’ll all take tea.

Surely this is a variant on this song, and as such I have taken the tune from Leah Jackson Wolford’s The Play Party in Indiana (with a few notes split because she printed the word “kettle” as one syllable!). The verse is commonplace (though the girl is sometimes named Molly, or rarely Jenny or some other name). Wolford calls it a play-party but says that the figures are forgotten.

There does seem to be a description of the game on page 133 of Celestin Pierre Cambiaire’s East Tennesse and West Virginia Mountain Ballads, though Cambiaire’s text is far from the common one. It has three stanzas, including,
Oh, Miss [Jenny], I love you.
Nothing on earth I admire above you.
My right hand, and heart, I’ll give to you.
One sweet kiss, and I leave you.
This obviously cannot be sung to the same melody.

Cambiaire describes this as a ring game, starting with a couple in the middle. “The girl who is inside of the ring picks a partner; the young man chooses one also, and both couples dance in the revolving circle. Then the two dancers who came in first in the center of the circle go back to their places, and are replaced by two other dancers. Successively the couples who came in are replaced by new couples in the revolving circle, until every young man and young girl has been in the center of the ring.”

Fans of J. R. R. Tolkien may be interested to learn that Tolkien used this tune for a song, although not one in the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit/Silmarillion cycle. He set his poem “‘Lit’ and ‘Lang'” (about the conflict between philology and literary criticism in college English departments) to this tune, according to John D. Rateliff, The History of the Hobbit, Part One, p. 188.

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