The Hippopotamus Song

I take requests. It’s a hangover from my days as a radio disc jockey. I always enjoyed that interaction with a listener on the telephone who wanted to suggest a song, especially when doing an overnight shift. At night there aren’t as many listeners as in the daytime; you can get to know your regular callers.

This post is by request, but, like a requested song that is usually appreciated by more people that just the person who made the phone call, I hope it will have some appeal for more than just my wife who suggested it.

Flanders & Swann were a British musical duo popular back in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the time I started listening to music. They were pre-rock and roll, I think of them as part of the British music hall tradition. They wrote a lot of silly songs that were sometimes topical, sometimes historical and always catchy. They released a couple of albums, toured extensively then went their own separate ways.

My mother was (and still is) a Flanders & Swann fan, though I think she only had one of their records, At the Drop of a Hat, a 1959 recording that was seared into my consciousness at an early age. It’s a live recording, music and comedic monologues, that I could probably recite in its entirety with little prodding.

Their best known song, I think, was from that record, a ditty called “The Hippopotamus Song,” which my mother would sing to us children, and which I in turn have sung to my children so that they can also break into the refrain if the occasion warrants:
Mud! Mud! Glorious mud!
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood!
So follow me follow,
Down to the hollow,
And there let us wallow in glorious mud!

The song was popular and enduring enough that an illustrated children’s book of it was published in 1991. Of course my mother gave a copy to my children, and we still have it, which is really where today’s story begins.

My daughter Janice is about to finish her university training and head off into the working world as a teacher. Classroom management has been a frequent topic at the dinner table (a natural hazard when you are married to a teacher and have a student teacher in the household). And it turns out “The Hippopotamus Song” can be used to quiet a crying child, something I had never tried when the children were younger.

Janice was working with the Sunday school children at church when there was a problem with one of the three-year-olds, who for reasons not explained to me, decided she was going to cry and not cheer up. The head of the children’s program had tried reasoning with her, to no avail. So Janice offered to help.

She remembered that the little girl, on a visit to our house, had enjoyed reading “The Hippopotamus Song” book, and Janice had taught her the chorus (which is all most people remember). So Janice began to sing it. The crying didn’t stop immediately, but did begin to match the rhythm of the song – then smiles broke out. Problem solved. Not the most spiritual solution, but effective. I wonder if that will work for Janice when she starts working in the classroom full-time. Maybe the first thing she will teach her students is “The Hippopotamus Song.”

It’s been more than 50 years since Flanders & Swann recorded the piece, and it still has the power to delight. That is what good music is all about.

If you have something you want me to write about here feel free to let me know. After all, I take requests. Especially if you want to hear Flanders & Swann.

(There is a spoken word introduction – the music starts at about the 1:20 mark.)


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