The blat-bray instrumental report

Left out of yesterday’s posting on the verb blat: some illustration of the sound in question and its realization in (Western) music, via instruments that are heard as mimicking the human voice — and animal sounds that resemble the  human voice (like the braying of donkeys and mules). One of these is the clarinet, seen here on a “Happy Donkey” tag for a clarinet case:


Meanwhile, you can watch a short video here showing the blat of a donkey.

Donkeys and mules set to music. A sampling of blat-bray music:

two violins: braying donkey, in Saint-Saens’s “Characters with Long Ears”, section VIII from Carnival of the Animals, which you can listen to here

violin: braying mule, in “On the Trail”, section 3 from the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofe; you can listen to the passage here, as played by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein

(in the modern mode) ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano: “Braying at Rothko in Tinsley Park” by Hugh Lobel; you can watch a performance here by The Playground Ensemble (at the Colorado Composers’ Concert on 4/27/2013)

(vocal) trumpet: “Loudly let the trumpet bray” (entry of the peers), from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe; you can listen here to a D’Oyly Carte recording

(movie music) guitar and other instruments: “The Braying Mule” by Ennio Morricone, from the film soundtrack for Django Unchained, which you can listed to here; guitar cover by Cllum McGaw, which you can listen to here

On the movie, from Wikipedia:

Django Unchained is a 2012 American revisionist Western film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson. Set in the Old West and Antebellum South, it is a highly stylized tribute to Spaghetti Westerns, in particular the 1966 film Django by Sergio Corbucci, whose star Franco Nero has a cameo appearance.

And now, the children’s hour. Searching for braying music led me to “Sweetly Sings the Donkey”, a single-verse song of unknown origin, with the words:

Sweetly sings the donkey
At the break of day,
If you do not feed him
This is what he’ll say,
Hee haw, hee haw, hee haw, hee haw, hee haw!

and the musical setting:


It can be sung as is, by a single voice (you can listen to a relatively inoffensive rendition here), or as a three-part round, and it can be performed on any instrument with the appropriate timbre; I’ve encountered versions on the clarinet, trumpet, French horn, flute, saxophone, trombone, recorder, and accordion — almost all by (decidedly inexpert) children or by adults in high teacher-mode, and I won’t subject you to them.

But if you listen to the video, you might recognize the tune, as a variant of the tune for some other children’s song. Kim Darnell immediately pegged it as “Little Bunny Foo Foo” (which I’d never even heard of). From Wikipedia:

Little Bunny Foo Foo is a children’s poem, involving a rabbit harassing a population of field mice. The rabbit is scolded [and given three chances to stop attacking the mice] and eventually punished by a fairy [who turns Bunny into a Goon]. Like many traditional folk songs, there are multiple versions with differing variations.

It is also known under the alternative name Little Rabbit Foo Foo; “Foo Foo” is sometimes spelled as “Fu Fu”. The poem is sung to the tune of “Down by the Station” (1948), and melodically similar to “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and the popular French-Canadian children’s song “Alouette” (1879).

The rhyme is usually sung by an older person to a younger child, using a repetitive tune that reinforces the meter, accompanied by hand gestures. In this mode of transmission, it is a form of tickle play that teaches and reinforces motor skills, often passed as childlore.

The crucial lyrics, in the version Kim knows:

Little bunny Foo Foo
I don’t want to see you
Scooping up the field mice
And bopping them on the head.

This is violent, but a video (by Phil Magnini) you can watch takes things up one bloodthirsty notch.

The Wikipedia page on “Little Bunny Foo Foo” gets us back to “Down by the Station”, which (finally) was a song I knew as a child (from camp, in the 1940s and early 50s). From its Wikipedia page:

“Down by the Station” is a popular song written by Lee Ricks and Slim Gaillard in 1948, and most famously recorded by Tommy Dorsey. The song remains popular today as a children’s music standard. The opening lines of the song are: Down by the station, early in the morning, see the little pufferbellies all in a row. The song itself is much older than 1948; it has been seen in a 1931 Recreation magazine.

Whether deliberately copied or not, the tune is very closely related to the chorus of the French/Canadian folk song “Alouette”. Although the first line is similar to Alouette, as one of the commenters on the talk page points out, it is more closely related to the tune of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” with the first two lines being similar. The third line of “Down by the Station” is higher in pitch than the second, and the fourth line returns to the pitch of the first line (except for a higher pitched or onomatopoetic “Toot! Toot!”).

You can listen to the 1948 Tommy Dorsey version here, and you can listen here to a 1960 Four Preps version (with different lyrics).

Then to “Itsy-Bitsy Spider”. From Wikipedia:

Itsy Bitsy Spider” (also known as “Incy Wincy Spider” and several other similar-sounding names) is a popular nursery rhyme and fingerplay that describes the adventures of a spider as it ascends, descends, and reascends the downspout or “waterspout” of a gutter system (or, alternatively, the spout of a teapot or open-air reservoir). It is usually accompanied by a sequence of gestures that mimic the words of the song.

The song can be found in publications including an alternative version in the book, Camp and Camino in Lower California (1910), where it was referred to as [the classic] “Spider Song”. It appears to be a different version of this song using “blooming, bloody” instead of just “itsy bitsy”. It was later published in one of its several modern versions in Western Folklore, by the California Folklore Society (1948).

The lyrics:

The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout.
Down came the rain
and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun
and dried up all the rain
and the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

You can watch a video here of twins Tierza and Tavie doing the hand gestures.

Now on to “Alouette”.  From Wikipedia:

“Alouette” or “Alouetté” is a popular French-Canadian children’s song about plucking the feathers from a lark, in retribution for being woken up by its song [frequently used as a way of teaching the names of bodyparts]. Although it is in French, it is well-known among speakers of other languages; in this respect it is similar to “Frère Jacques”. Many American doughboys and other Allied soldiers learned the song while serving in France during World War I and took it home with them, passing it on to their children and grandchildren.

Its origin is uncertain, though the most popular theory is that it is French-Canadian. The song was first published in A Pocket Song Book for the Use of Students and Graduates of McGill College (Montreal, 1879). However, Canadian folklorist Marius Barbeau was of the opinion that the song’s origin was France.

The chorus:

Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.

Then with verses of the form

Je te plumerai X. x2
Et X!  x2
Alouette!  x2

where X is … la tête, … le bec, … les yeux, … le cou, … les ailes, … les pattes, … la queue, … le dos.

For a performance by adults, you can watch here a video of The Delta Rhythm Boys in 1958.

One Response to “The blat-bray instrumental report”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    One more piece of donkey-music: Mahler’s song Lob des hohen Verstands, in which the singer imitates the bray of a jackass by singing the syllables “i-ja” on a high A flat and a low G, respectively.

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