“Uncle John is Sick Abed”


"Uncle John is sick abed, What shall we send him? Three good wishes, three good kisses, And a slice of ginger bread." "Who shall we send it by?" "[Player's name], so they say, goes a-couring night and day... And takes Miss [name] for his bride."


This is rather a puzzling piece. Roud lumps it with the old Scots game of "Cockabendie," collected several times by Grieg, Certainly they share lyrics, and both are game songs. The overall text, however, is fairly distinct. Randolph's version begins with a verse from this, then goes off on what appears a different game -- and yet many of the lyrics appear in Gomme's "Uncle Tom is Very Sick."

If we take as our starting point the line "Uncle X is sick abed," we find that one of the few coherent versions is Wolford's, which is used as the basis for the description here. She describes her version as a kissing game, though the figures have been lost. The tune is "Yankee Doodle."

Laura Ingalls Wilder, _On the Banks of Plum Creek_, chapter 21 (p. 159 of the paperback edition) has a version which is very similar to Wolford's but shorter -- and peculiar, since it appears to have *ten* lines, not eight or 12 or 16.

This raises an interesting question: Wilder seems to imply that her version is a ring game, not a kissing game. But Laura disliked kissing games, and once brushed off a suitor because he put his arm around her waist (see John E. Miller, _Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend_, University of Misouri Press, 1998, p. 64. If you want a measure of how sexually conservative Laura was, consider the fact that, at the end of their lives, she and her husband had separate beds even though the evidence is strong that she still loved him -- after he died, she preferred to sleep in his bed! -- Miller, p. 251).

Also, if this were the same as "Cockabendie," how did it end up being sung to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" -- hardly a Scottish tune!

My tentative conclusions:

1. That this song, though from the same roots as "Cockabendie," is now so distinct as to deserve separate filing.

2. That it was known as a kissing game, even to Wilder

3. That Wilder really did play it in Walnut Grove, Minnesota -- why else cite it at that point, since she would presumably have disapproved of the song? - RBW

Cross references


  1. Randolph 678, "Ride About, Ride About" (1 text plus a fragment, 1 tune; the "B" text starts with a stanza of this though the "A" text and the last two stanzas of "B" appear to be something unrelated)
  2. Roud #13080


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1916 (Wolford)
Found in: US(MW,So) Britain