This postcard, from 1906 or thereabouts, was a bit of a puzzle to me. We were taught this basic song in grade school, and though I knew they seldom bothered to teach us all the verses of folk songs (except The Fox Went Out On a Chilly Night, since there’s a story to follow.) but not only did I not recall this particular verse, I was puzzled that my teachers would even have allowed us to read a ;yric with lyrics of dubious morality. I grew up to enjoy some of Robert Burns’s other lyrics of dubious morality (he was REALLY good at dubious morality) and I was aware of why all the ladies smiled at her while comin’ thro’ the rye, but somehow I never ran across this declaration. Was this a parody, someone’s naughty version of an old favorite?
I looked the whole thing up, and the Interwebs, though informative, was not altogether definite. This lyric above is one of Robert Burns’s, but you need to work to get there. There’s a first version of the song, and a second version of the song, and no two websites agree perfectly on the words and some come right out and say that once again Robert Burns was adapting an old folk song, and therefore the original lyrics, if findable, need to be taken into consideration as well. THEN you need to look at all the different ways the original dialect was rendered in everyday English (not neglecting Bill Haley’s “Rockin’ Through the Rye”.) And what did I learn, in the end? (By the way, I never DID find the lyrics as I was taught them in school. But there are LOTS of versions, and, after all, my memory may be faulty, since I went to grade school, um, well, just say the teacher didn’t have to warn us to put our phones on mute.)
Well, in SOME versions of the original version, this is the actual full chorus. The bit about kissing came in with the second version. (There is a third version, possibly not by Burns, which replaces certain words in the second version, especially “kiss”
So what is the “rye” our heroine is comin’ thro’? Later verses make it clear she gets wet on her way, so what’s going on here? Leaving aside what’s going on here, although there are stories which make it the abbreviated name of a river while others make it a famous highway known for its puddles, most everybody agrees that it is a dewy field of grain, specifically, um, rye.
As for what’s going on in the poem, well, if you can make it through the Scottish words shown above, that’s fairly clear. Our heroine is a cheerful young lady with or without a steady boyfriend (depends on the version you read) who nonetheless manages to get by. In the first version, our poet lets us know her name is Jenny and makes it clear that she is “seldom dry”, though he goes on to mention that this is no doubt because her petticoat drags while comin’ thro’ the rye.
It still seems a little odd that this should have become standard concert fare during the nineteenth century, especially during the Victorian age, when we are confidently told by pop historians that our ancestors would not even consider repeating anything mildly suggestive. (Mind you, these are the same sort of people who claim we only sing it these days because we’ve read “Catcher in the Rye”. And about their constant reference to the 1980s as “the height of the Cold War”…but that’s a whole nother blog.) I guess the specific mention of kissing in the second version made it all okay, and if our ancestors worried about the symbolism of the tall stalks of rye, they kept it to themselves.
Anyhow, as might be noticed from the illustrations to this blog, it was a song well enough known, even before J.D. Salinger, to cause all sorts of postcard references and revisions. And, since I have not yet found a postcard which has someone “Comin’ Through the Wry”, I’m sure I haven’t found all of them. That fox going out on his chilly night cannot say as much (unless he ran through a field of barley while on the town-o, and ran into Jenny, and didn’t tell his wife and kids about it when he got home.)