“The Worms Crawl In”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1923
Keywords: death burial humorous nonballad
Found in: US(MA,MW,SE,So,SW)

Description

"Did you ever think when the hearse goes by That you might be the next to die?.... The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, The worms play pinochle on your snout...." A detailed description of how corruption attacks a body in a grave

Notes

The Pankakes report that this has been attributed to the Crimean War. They do not cite a source for this information.

The key line, "The worms crawl out, the worms crawl in" appears as part of "Skin and Bones (The Skin and Bones Lady)" in the revised 1810 edition of _Gammer Gurton's Garland_, but it may have been an editorial insertion.

A similar lyric is found in the ballad of "Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogene," but I don't know if that's a case of cross-dependence (let alone which way the dependence goes) or an independent evolution.

Charles Clay Doyle published a study of this, "'As the Hearse Goes By': The Modern Child's _Memento Mori_,' in Francis Edward Abernathy, ed., _What's Going On? (In Modern Texas Folklore)_ (1976; the Doyle essay begins on p. 175). This documents the widespread nature of the song (without giving really detailed statistics about its distribution). It also compares it with a Middle English tradition of songs about bodily decay -- a comparison I find rather a stretch. - RBW

Same tune

Cross references

References

  1. BrownIII 142, "Old Woman All Skin and Bones" (4 texts plus 2 excerpts and mention of 3 more, all basically "Skin and Bones (The Skin and Bones Lady)," but the "B" text seems to have picked up a "Worms Crawl In" chorus)
  2. Sandburg, p. 444, "The Hearse Song" (2 texts, 1 tune, containing these lyrics but with particularizations regarding a military burial; the result would probably qualify as a separate song if better known)
  3. Lomax-ABFS, pp. 556-557, "The Hearse Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Silber-FSWB, p. 242, "The Hearse Song" (1 text)
  5. Pankake-PHCFSB, p. 124, "Did You Ever Think" (1 text)
  6. Fuld-WFM, pp. 657-658+, "The Worms Crawl In (The Hearse Song)"
  7. Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #92, pp. 86-88, "(There was a lady all skin and bone)" (contains this verse)
  8. DT, WORMSCRA
  9. Roud #15546
  10. BI, San444