Jan 13

Jaw-dropping Girl Scout/camp songs: “Sipping Cider” (wink, wink)

Songs from my childhood get stuck in my head. The Girl Scout troops and camps I attended taught us some mighty catchy songs. We sang a lot — do Scouts still do this? I think we learned some of them on road trips so we wouldn’t sing the song about 99 bottles of beer on the wall, or the ants that come marching one by one, until we drove the adults crazy.

The thing is — those of you who learned a lot of Scout and camping songs, have you ever gone back and read the lyrics? Or written them down, if they were stuck in your head? And really looked at them? Because I have to wonder how some of these got into the songbook, as it were.

Here’s the one that was stuck in my head today. It will now likely be stuck in yours. It’s called “Sipping Cider Through a Straw.” We sang it a lot. It’s one of those songs where you split the group into two — each line in a first half of verse is repeated, then the whole verse is repeated, as I’ll demonstrate with the first verse but not the others.

The cutest boy (the cutest boy)
I ever saw (I ever saw)
was sipping cider
through a straw.

The cutest boy I ever saw
was sipping cider through a straw.

Okay, stop right here. Seven-year-old Brownies are singing about sighting cute boys. Is that empowering? I ask you. And then there’s the cider. I grew up in the South, a land of very little cider, nonalcoholic or otherwise. Now if you set this song in a London pub, you might have something there, although that would be entirely child-inappropriate and would probably end badly for the singer. (Not that this one ends well. You’ll see.)

I asked him if
he’d show me how
to sip my cider
through a straw

I asked him if he’d show me how
to sip my cider through a straw.

Words fail me.

Okay, maybe not. So we’re too dumb to understand how to use a straw? Or is the point here that we are flirting with the cutest boy? Either option is not great for Brownies or even Junior Scouts. (Cadettes, perhaps, could get away with it but Cadettes are too cool to sing camp songs. We sang a lot of Rick Springfield. Shut up.) And as a flirting lesson, it sucks. Girls, you do not need to act stupid to land the cutest boys.

He said he would
he’d show me how
to sip my cider
through a straw

He said he would he’d show me how
to sip my cider through a straw.

So he’s flirting back, at least. Or else he’s equally dumb. Or perhaps this is some kind of special cider and a very complicated straw.

Also, is anyone here sensing a sexual subtext? There’s a straw. The guy is going to show you how it works, ladies. Perhaps the problem is that it’s not a very bendy straw? Or you have to drink through it with the wrapper on to prevent accidents? Not that we thought about any of this as Girl Scouts. If we Cadettes had been a little smarter and less fixated on 80s pop music we might have turned this whole thing into a filthy ditty and gotten away with it.

So cheek to cheek
and jaw to jaw
we sipped our cider
through a straw

So cheek to cheek and jaw to jaw
we sipped our cider through a straw

Ah, nostalgia. More innocent times when love was symbolized by a boy and girl sipping cider through a straw together. Okay, that really does sound dirty now that I’ve started thinking about it that way.

The copy editor in me has concerns. First of all, does each person have his or her own straw? Because then they would be sipping cider through their straws, not a straw. Now the Scouts are learning bad grammar along with ineffective flirting techniques.

And the Southern girl in me asks, what, the guy was too cheap to buy the singer her own cider? And what is this with the cider? I always thought the romantic drink-sharing happened with ice-cream sodas, or even milkshakes. (Or since this is obviously a song written by Northerners, frappes.)

Then suddenly
the straw did slip
and we sipped cider
lip to lip

Then suddenly the straw did slip
and we sipped cider lip to lip.

This is the verse that everyone giggled through. Lip to lip! That means KISSING! They were KISSING! In the song! Which we were singing! In public!

And this is the bit that caused me to go off and actually sit here and write something that is not about movies. A lot of camp songs have this horrible quality, a coy sniggering about something that pretends to be naughty.  It’s what I call “shiitake mushroom syndrome” thanks to Spy Kids (an otherwise excellent film). The boy in that film says “shii … take mushrooms!” and suddenly my sister the teacher reports that all the middle-school kids are saying it because it sounds like a dirty word but isn’t. But that’s relatively innocent — when you hear it in some of these songs it can have weirdly sexist or otherwise distasteful undertones.

(Another great example is the “Three Jolly Fishermen” song but I’ll save that for another time.)

So the singer in this song just couldn’t help it! She was a nice innocent lass who just wanted to learn how to drink cider with a straw, which is very difficult for we girls, or who just wanted to flirt a little with that cute boy. And now here she is, liplocked. Whether she likes it or not is never quite made clear, although the jump from this verse to the next is really disturbing.

That’s how I got
my mother in law
and fourteen kids
who call me Ma

That’s how I got my mother in law
and 14 BRATS who call me Ma.

We never sang in a happy voice, as though this was a wanted outcome. Usually we got rather crabby and shouty. We especially liked to shout out the word “brats.”

So, let this be a lesson to you girls. You start messing around with straws and cider and cute boys and your future will involve enough children to get you a reality TV show, perhaps on one of the lesser cable channels, and a stereotypically evil in-law, or so we can discern from the tone of this verse. Not only that, but you’re not supposed to initiate all of this straw-related hanky panky. See what happens when you don’t wait for the boy to offer you some cider (for which you decline using his straw, natch)?

We hear nothing of the cutest boy in this verse. Did he run away after Offspring 14 was a mere bun in the oven, leaving these women and children to fend for themselves? Is he out working double-shifts to earn the daily bread for this mob? Is he at the pub drinking pints of Strongbow, and instructing other young women in proper straw usage?

The lesson here for the singers is really: Don’t fool around sexually, it’ll ruin your life. And boy did I hear that lesson in so many ways all the way through high school.

But wait, the song has a moral. All good Girl Scout songs have morals. (Sorry. Little show-tune in-joke there.)

The moral of
this little tale
is sip your cider
in a pail

The moral of this little tale
is sip your cider in a pail.

We never understood this verse, so the end was a letdown. Sometimes we sang it as “don’t sip cider from a straw,” which didn’t rhyme but at least made more sense. I mean, what does a pail have to do with any of this? I can’t even think of a good sexual metaphor. Should you engulf your head in the pail while drinking so there’s no room for the cutest boy to get in there with his irresistable, difficult-to master straw?

We sang a lot of old-fashioned songs in Girl Scouts and when I ran a Google search on this one, I expected it would be completely out of fashion now. But no, the web is full of pages that detail the lyrics and promote this as a wonderful song for kids’ group outings. There are even YouTube videos.

It seems the song is from the early 1900s and is actually about “the prettiest girl” instead of “the cutest boy.” Also, there are 49 kids in many versions of the lyrics, not 14. The change in quantity when you change gender makes sense — no woman or girl would want to consider the possibility of giving birth to 49 children. That gets you a reality show on a major network, I believe, and probably some great morning-show spots and book deals. And also no sensation below the waist. I don’t want to sing that song.

The web tells me that “Sipping Cider Through a Straw” was recorded by Byron G. Harlan and Arthur Collins in 1919. And you can find an MP3 on the UC-Santa Barbara website (although the page seems rather out of date and forgotten). But while some of the lyrics are the same, it’s an entirely different song that makes more sense and is more suited to its performers.

So how did a goofy love song from the 1910s become a Girl Scout standard? That, I can’t figure out. But I think the Scouts might be better off with Rick Springfield and Rod Stewart. And that’s not saying much.

Next time: “Three Jolly Fishermen” or “She Sat on the Hillside and Played Her Guitar”? Still deciding.