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Sing, Sing a Song
Written February 25, 2009


            -1-

Sing a song of sixpence,
     a pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
     baked into a pie.

When the pie was opened,
     the birds began to sing.
Wasn't that a dainty dish
     to set before the king?

 

            -2-

Sing a song of cities.
     Roll that cotton bale!
Roustabout am happy,
     long's he's out of jail.

Norfolk for its oyster shells,
     Boston for its beans,
Charleston for its rice and corn,
     but for lassies, New Orleans.

 

            -3-

Sing a song of colleges.
      A dying mother said,
"Don't send my boy to Princeton;
     I'd rather see him dead.

But send my boy to Rutgers,
     or even to Cornell.
But as for Pennsylvania,
     he's better off in hell.”

 

            -4-

Sing a song of colleges.
     I'll tell you where to go:
Oxford for its knowledges,
     Cornell to learn to row,

Harvard for its chappy lads,
     Yale for pep and vim,
Northwestern for its pretty girls —
     for good fellows, Oberlin."

 

And now for the rest of the story.

Stanza 1 is an early-18th-century nursery rhyme that reportedly refers to 24 pirates, paid with whiskey and sixpence a day, lurking in their pirate ship under the command of their pirate king Blackbeard.

Stanza 2 is the second verse of a late-19th-century minstrel song whose chorus begins, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”  Most versions use the n-word instead of roustabout and lassies.

Multiple variations of the final two verses exist.  Stanza 3 was sung in the 20th century by Rutgers students, and Stanza 4 was sung in 1965 by me during my freshman orientation at Oberlin College.  I recounted my experience the next day in my first letter home.

In 2009, a grad student found that letter on this website.  The student is in the Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program at the University of Alabama, and an assignment involved looking up the lyrics and tune to "Sing A Song of Colleges."  A short search led him to the lyrics I posted.  However, he failed to find the music anywhere, so finally he e-mailed me.  I didn’t remember the tune, so I forwarded his query to Russ Hurd, my fellow Oberlin alumnus who led us in song that night in 1965.  Russ wrote down the music and even offered to sing it to the student over the phone!

I've updated my original letter with this new information, including the tune and the second verse mentioning Oberlin's "sacred seal."  Click here.

 

TBT

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