Remembering the Old Songs:

The Swapping Boy (The Foolish Boy, The Swapping Song)

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, July 1999)

If one silly song about animals is a good thing (see Fod! in last month's issue), what could be better than two in a row?

The problem with silly songs like this one is that they don't have a standard title. I first heard this (on a children's record) as The Swapping Boy, but the most common title seems to be The Swapping Song, and the closest version I can find to the one I know is called The Foolish Boy. I've also seen it called Wim Wam Waddles and My Grandfather Died and I don't know how many other titles.

That the song is of British origin can hardly be doubted; although it has been found in the U.S and Ulster, most known versions (including the oldest, printed in 1842) are English. Lest it be doubted that it belongs here, however, I should note that it has been collected at least four times in Kentucky (three times by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles), as well as in Ohio and in the Ozarks. The version here seems to be my personal perversion of the version I learned off that children's record (sung by John Langstaff), which is very close to one of Sharp's versions, which reportedly came from "a schoolgirl at Hindman, Knott County, [Kentucky]."

Mary O. Eddy, who printed the Ohio version, theorized that this is a combination of "two separate songs, When I Was a Little Boy and Swapping Song. She attributes the first to, of all things, Wat Tyler's 1381 rebellion in England. Personally, that goes on my "I'll believe it when you come up with real evidence" list.

The verse of this song almost can't be said to have a melody; the Sharp/Karpeles book prints it with measures in 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time. I managed, by shoving the beat back an eighth, to make it come out in even 4/4, but basically you just patter through the verse. The melody comes to life in the chorus, which is melodically the whole point of the song.

You can have a lot of fun with this by adding your own animals, or even asking kids to tell you an animal and trying to come up with a verse. Of course, you'll have to be fast on the draw; you can be sure that kids will give you some strange animal like a kangaroo or a penguin. The emergency solution, in that case, is just to make up a nonsense rhyme, along the lines of

I swapped my (hen) and I got me a gerbil
And the silly thing said "wurble wurble wurble."

Or how about

I swapped my horse and I got me a lion,
And if you believe it, I tell you I'm lyin'.

You really can have a lot of fun this way.

I suspect that the Sharp text has been slightly bowdlerized (this is the man, after all, who gave us "changed my maiden name" for "stole my maidenhead"). But I really don't think the song is any worse for having a few bad words removed.

Swapping Boy

Complete Lyrics:

When I was a little boy, I lived by myself
And all the bread and cheese I had I kept upon the shelf.
To my wim wam waddle,
To my jack straw straddle,
To my Johnnie's got his fiddle
And he's going on home.

The rats and the mice, they led me such a life,
I had to go to London to get me a wife.

The ruts were so wide and the lanes were so narrow,
I had to bring her home in an old wheelbarrow.

My foot it slipped and I got a fall,
And down came my wheelbarrow, wife and all.

I swapped my wheelbarrow and got me a mare
And then I rode from fair to fair.

I swapped my mare and I got me a cow,
And then for to milk her I didn't know how.

I swapped my cow and I got me a calf
And in that trade I just lost half.

I swapped my calf and I got me a mule
And then I rode like a silly old fool.

I swapped my mule and I got me a hen
And oh what a pretty thing I had then.

I swapped my hen and I got me a mole
And the silly thing went straight to its hole.

And now the songbook's back on the shelf;
If you want any more, you can sing it yourself.


The most complete set of references for this is probably Peter Kennedy's Folksongs of Britain and Ireland; under the title Wim-Wam-Waddles, this is #313. Kennedy lists about a dozen printed versions, starting with Halliwell's in 1842. Sam Henry's Songs of the People (p. 57, My Grandfather Died) lists several additional versions as well as a dozen or so recordings. To the references cited in these two books should be added Eddy's #93, The Swapping Song (Ohio) and Randolph's #256, Went to the River (Ozarks). For a text similar to this one, see either the Sharp Appalachian collection (three versions); the one cited here is also found in Sharp/Karpeles, Eighty English Folk Songs.

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