It's not often that one bouncy little kids' song can teach you both economics and physics, but this song comes pretty close. It's the story of a young man who engaged in a series of trades, and gradually lost most of what he started with. This illustrates the second-most important physical law in the universe, the second law of thermodynamics -- which, to state it informally, says that all transfers of energy involve some waste. To put it in economic terms, all transactions have overhead. If all you do is shuffle money from here to there, eventually you'll waste it all (or the value of the money will be inflated away). This is the old "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" principle. Which, unfortunately, a lot of hedge fund managers and bankers forgot, and a lot of us are going broke as a result.
This song probably originated in Britain, where it goes by names such as The Foolish Boy or Wim-Wam-Waddles. This has prompted a lot of speculation about its origin -- including even a tale that it goes back to Wat Tyler's Rebellion of 1381. (The only evidence for this that I can see is that the singer goes to London. Tyler's peasants did go to London, to try to get concessions out of the government of Richard II. But Tyler ended up dead, and there were no concessions. I flatly don't believe the link. I find it easier to believe that it is a combination of two songs, one about hunting a wife and the other about a series of swaps. But most surviving versions include both plots.)
But if the song is British in origin, it is very common in the United States as well; Cox, Sharp, Brown, Wyman, Camaiaire, and others had versions. Nearly every Appalachian state has at least one attestation. There is also an old-time recording by Bradley Kincaid.
I learned the song from a recording by John Langstaff, whose verson seems to have been based on one collected by Olive Dame Campbell in Kentucky. Indeed, based on what information is available, it may well have come from a member of the Ritchie family; the location is right, and Jean Ritchie sings a very similar version. Jean in her book, Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, says that her family used it for baby bouncing.
I've probably hacked this up a little; the Campbell transcription has an extra beat in it (the fourth measure, in the transcripton in Sharp & Karpeles, 80 English Folk Songs, is written as a measure in 2/4 and then one in 3/4!). The Ritchie transcription is closer to mine, but has some differences in the tones. My lyrics also show some variations from both Campbell's and Ritchie's. So I may have folk processed this a little. If you know one of the other sources, you can always folk process it back!
When I was a little boy, I lived by myself
And all the bread and cheese I had I laid them on the shelf.
To my wim-wam-waddle, To my Jack Straw straddle,
To my Johnny'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.
I swapped my wheelbarrow, got me a horse,
And then I rode from cross to cross.
I swapped my horse and got me a mare,
And then I rode from fair to fair.
I swapped my mare and got me a cow,
But in that trade 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 got me a mule.
And then I rode like a silly old fool.
1 swapped my mule and I got me a sheep
And then I worked myself to sleep.
I swapped my sheep and got me a hen,
And O what a pretty thing I had then.
I swapped my hen and got me a mole
And the tiny thing went straight for its hole.
[Click HERE to hear a MIDI file playing a simple, unexpressive, version of the tune.]