[Ads-l] "Ten Little Indians" 1849

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 15 21:05:34 UTC 2022

The children’s counting song, “Ten Little Indians, has been discussed briefly here before.  Like many other comments found elsewhere, the comment here assumed that the N-word version was the “original” version and Indians a “euphemized” version.


But, as it turns out, the Indian version, in nearly the exact same form and tune I learned in Kindergarten or somewhere else at about the same age, was published and sung in 1849 by a group called the Gibson Troupe or Gibson Family.  The sheet music can be viewed at a sheet music archive maintained by Johns Hopkins.  There are also contemporary newspaper accounts of their singing the song.


Their title for the song is “Old John Brown.”  The name seems more likely to be a corruption of an earlier nursery rhyme, “Tom Brown had two little Indians,” which appeared in print as early as 1810, and not a reference to John Brown the abolitionist, who would not be very famous until ten years later.

A man named Septimus Winner wrote a song apparently based on the earlier Old John Brown song, but with a rewritten chorus with a different melody, and ten new verses describing the disappearance or death of nine of the Indian boys, and then the marriage and eventually a large family with ten children.   An English song writer named Frank Green adopted Winner’s melody, rewrote the verses to have even more unlikely disappearances and deaths, but with 10 N-word boys in place of the original Indian boys.  That song was introduced on stage in London in 1868.  It was later published in the US, but seems to have remained better known in England, where Agatha Christie eventually adapted the various methods of disappearance and death into a mystery book with the name of the song, which was published under a different title in the US.

Most commentary about the children’s song assume that the children’s song people learn as children was based on  Septimus Winner and Frank Green’s versions – but the opposite is true.  Their versions are not even the same melody or words, and the ten extra verses were added.  I never even knew about the existence of the problematic versions until I lived in Germany and heard a popular novelty song about ten hunters<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tR4vamT51Nw>, which I was informed was based on the German version of the problematic song, which I guess was much better known there than here.

And the verses Winner and Green added about the disappearances or deaths of the nine boys appear to have been based on a different song, altogether, about ten little blackbirds who flew away one at a time for various reasons.  Winner and Green rewrote most of the verses, but between the two of them retained six rhyming word-pairs from the blackbird song, strongly suggesting they based their verses on that song.

Interestingly, bringing everything full-circle, the blackbird song appears to have been based on earlier nursery rhymes about two blackbirds sitting on a hill, or two birds sitting on a stone, which fly away one at a time.  The two-birds-sitting-on-a-stone song is also apparently the basis of a song about three blue-bottles sitting on a milestone, which appears to be the basis of 99 blue bottles hanging on the wall and 99 bottles of beer on the wall, which I discussed here recently.

I posted my findings about Ten Little Indians here.

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