The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out

Underneath (or, perhaps, to the side of) adult culture sits an often poorly documented culture for children alone. There are, of course, many songs and stories directed by adults to children, but true child culture consists of games, riddles, songs, stories, and rules directed from children to other children.

A rather dark example, largely specific to North America, is the Hearse Song below (the video gives a more complete version, but I must warn my readers – it’s really very gross, and not at all suitable for adults):

Don’t ever laugh as a hearse goes by
For you may be the next to die
They wrap you up in a big white sheet
From your head down to your feet
They put you in a big black box
And cover you up with dirt and rocks …
And the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out
The worms play pinochle on your snout …

The song is essentially a form of gallows humour picked up by children at around age 10 – about the age that children first come to grips with the inevitably of death (although it is rather surprising, given that the US is a majority-Christian society, that Christian views of death barely appear in the song at all). The excellent article on the song by Charles Doyle also reports military versions of the song from World War I recorded by Carl Sandburg and John J. Niles, but those appear to draw on earlier childhood versions.

I’ve been experimenting with a textual analysis focussing on song snippets containing lines devoted to interment (2 to 6 lines, depending on the version). I compared versions with a variation of the Levenshtein distance at the word level, using a table of related words, and allowing for permuted lines. The multi-dimensional scaling diagram below collapses the calculated distances into two dimensions. The phrase “Doyle var” refers to variants listed by Doyle (e.g. “They put you in a big white shirt / And cover you up with rocks and dirt”), whereas “Alternate” refers to versions I have collected myself on the Internet (e.g. “They wrap you up in a bloody black sheet / And throw you down a thousand feet”). A large amount of mishearing and misremembering seems to be going on.

The numbers in brackets on the chart indicate the number of lines in each snippet. The 2-line child versions form a visible cluster in the diagram, with 4-line versions by modern bands (Harp Twins and Rusty Cage) a little more distant, and the World War I versions on the periphery all quite different:

Distances can also be visualised as an UPGMA tree. However, this cannot really be interpreted as an evolutionary tree, in that the 4-line band versions seem to be combining lines from multiple 2-line versions. Indeed, there seems to be a large pool of rhyming pairs within the culture that is assembled and reassembled in various ways, rather than any canonical song. Perhaps this reflects the character of the verbally innovative child culture in which the song (or, rather, song family) dwells.