January 24th, 2020

Green Grow the Russians, Oh!

A song got stuck in my head the other day, but I had forgotten the words. No, wait: I never entirely knew them to begin with. They made no sense, but that didn't matter, as for the most part they were unintelligible. About all I could clearly recall at first was the line:

I'll sing you five-oh; green grow the Russians, oh!

And with that, a whole dumpster of brain sludge emptied out into my forebrain. It is a tale (probably) worth telling.

Ok. In the summer of 1963, I went to Boy Scout Camp for the first time. I was 11. It was at Camp Owassipe, the big Scout reservation inland of Muskegon, Michigan. The camp at that point was 11,000 acres huge, and that first year we were at Camp West, one of several camp centers within Owassipe. Camp West was for tent camping (no cabins) and was a CCC project from the '30s that had not been well-maintained and after thirty years was falling apart. But it was right on a lake and we loved it.

Part of the Camp West experience was eating three meals a day in a big log-lodge mess hall that must have held two hundred tweener boys. The food was hot dogs and hamburgers. We didn't care; we were lower-middle-class upstarts and had no issues with hot dogs and hamburgers. I don't remember there being any green vegetables, and I was good with that.

But one thing none of us had ever experienced before was singing songs after meals. There were several college-age junior scoutmasters at Camp West, and they led the digesting masses in several rousing pieces before sending us on our way. I remember only two of the songs, and only one clearly: Rise and Shine. One of the mess hall song leaders was a junior scoutmaster named Jory, so as you can imagine, most of us sang:

Rise and shine and give God your glory, Jory!

Being tweener boys, it was funny even after singing it seventeen hundred times. Fortunately for us, Jory was a good sort, a little overweight and very much the showman. For all we could tell, he was singing it too.

Now, the other song. Our Scout troop was based at our Catholic church, and what we sang at school were either Catholic hymns or odd little songs in songbooks published by the Sisters of Providence, which were more or less junior Catholic hymnals with some kid stuff tossed in for seasoning. (Gregorian chant wasn't the sort of thing you sang at Scout camp.) I'm guessing that most of the other kids were Protestants, because they knew the songs and we didn't. The song leaders assumed that we all knew the songs, and didn't take time to teach them. We learned them by listening to the other kids. Except this time, the lyrics were nowhere near as clear--especially with half the boys horsing around and generating plenty of QRM. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the weirdest kid song ever. This has "Baby Shark" beat all cold: Meet Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!

It was a counting song, like "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which gave us some clues, at least. It started out with a grammar puzzle:

I'll sing you one, oh; green grow the rushes oh!

What is your one-oh?

One is one and all alone and evermore shall be it so.

First of all...rushes? This was pre-Vatican II, and although we were taught Bible stories, we did not read them from the Bible, even baby Moses in the rushes. (This was a Catholic peccadillo that ended with the Council.) The word "rushes" was not in our working vocabulary. We knew them as "cat tails." However, the Russians loomed large in almost every part of life in that era. They were the emblematic Bad Guys of my grade school '60s, who we were sure would first beat us to the Moon and then kill us all with nuclear missiles. So we insulted them at every opportunity. Swapping in "Russians" for "rushes" made no objective sense, but it made perfect sense to Cold War era tweener boys.

Alas, we couldn't quite parse the clause "evermore shall be it so." Sister Marie Bernard would have circled that in red and taken points off. So we sang "and evermore shall be a stone." It was a good guess, and better still, we could diagram it if we had to.

Some of the others were obvious, like "Twelve for the Twelve Apostles." Which made this a God song, just like "Rise and Shine." Ditto "Ten for the Ten Commandments." "Eleven for the Eleven Who Went to Heaven" was also obvious, in part because not much rhymes with "eleven" but "seven" and "heaven." (The word "leaven" was not yet in our vocabulary books.) Were there only eleven people in Heaven? Kind of a lonely place. Our Mass books were crusty with saints, and we had to wonder where they all ended up.

After ten it got a little freaky. "Nine for the Nine Bright Shiners?" What were they? God's baseball team? "Eight for the April Rainers?" I remember singing this as "April Rangers." Maybe the April Rainers were God's farm team. Farmers like rain, no?

"Seven for the Seven Stars in the Sky." As with the saints in Heaven, this figure seemed a little short, especially since you could see every star there was in rural Michigan night skies in 1963. Maybe the songwriter lived in Chicago, where you might see seven, if you were lucky and had good eyes.

"Six for the Six Proud Walkers." I believe I heard this one correctly, but that didn't prevent us from singing "Six for the Six Loud Talkers." Given that talking in class was a sort of secular mortal sin, we assumed these guys were not among the eleven in Heaven. Besides, Pride was a Capital Sin.

"Five for the symbols at your door." Hmmm. I heard that word as "sinfuls" which while wholeheartedly Catholic seemed off somehow. Maybe it accounted for the semiregular visits by the Jehovah Witnesses, who much annoyed my very pious mother.

"Four for the Gospel makers." I'm pretty sure everyone was singing "Gospel Writers," which at least made sense numerically, and we were back to God territory. (Every writeup admits that some of the lines came in multiple versions.)

"Three, three, arrivals." Huh? I swear, the first time we sang the song, this came to me as "Please clean the rifles." "Three, three survivors" was what we ended up singing, lacking any strong clue as to who had survived, nor what trials they had undergone. Without being able to name them, I recalled the three guys who got thrown in a furnace by the Babylonians but survived because Jesus was in there with them, and you did not mess with Jesus.

"Two, two little white boys, dressed in all their green-oh." I'm also pretty sure this is what everybody was singing, even though the definitive version is "lily-white boys." Supposedly this is about the two main stars in Gemini, which on bad nights might well be the only stars you could see in Chicago. As for dressing a star in anything, well, you dress the star of your choice. I'll watch--from a hundred million miles or so.

One, as mentioned earlier, was a stone. If it was all alone, it should have ducked down a Chicago alley, which in 1963 were gravel-paved and where most of our stones came from.

My following two years at Boy Scout Camp were at a much newer campground, which did not have a mess hall. They delivered hot food in giant thermos bottles from a jeep, and we ate at picnic tables. We sang some songs around the central campfire in the evenings, but beyond a somber item about Chief Owassipe none of them have stuck even a little.

Considering "Green Grow the Rushes, Oh"'s cloudy origins and multitude of verse variations and interpretations, I can't say we did it much violence. After all, see this, from the song's entry on Wikipedia:

"The musicologist Cecil Sharp, influential in the folklore revival in England, noted in his 1916 One Hundred English Folksongs that the words are "so corrupt, indeed, that in some cases we can do little more than guess at their original meaning".

We were from Chicago. Corruption there was so ubiquitous that most people didn't even notice it. As for guessing, well, we guessed, and our guesses were as good as anybody's. If it came back to me fifty-five years later, I'd say its evolution as an earworm was very robust. Plus, it propelled me to a long and motley career of writing silly lyrics to well-known songs.

As for the Russians, they were the wrong color, unless they were like bell peppers. You never can tell with Russians.