Harman Patil (Editor)

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

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The phrase and title There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly—alternatively, I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, or There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly, or I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly—is a children's rhyme and song of a kind known as cumulative. The song tells the story of an old woman who swallowed increasingly large animals, each to catch the previously swallowed animal. There are many variations of phrasing in the lyrics, especially for the description of swallowing each animal. The spider and fly are described in each verse, but the other animals are only described when they are introduced. The absurdity stems from the increasingly improbable solutions that only worsen the initial problem and are more likely to cause the woman's death: the logic of swallowing of even more animals of preposterous sizes without dying, contrasted with the expected, matter-of-fact recounting of her death from swallowing an animal larger than herself, when in fact the swallowing of any animal as a solution was absurd. This song for children appeals to their initial logic that a fly can be swallowed by an old lady. A spider would also be seen as logical and physically possible. As you get to the bird, it slowly becomes clear for the child that it's part of an imaginary scenario leading to a whole horse being swallowed. The last sentence brings the child back to a rational understanding that the old lady is in fact dead of course as physically this is impossible making place for children's amusement and laughter.


The song was written by Rose Bonne (lyrics) and Alan Mills and copyrighted in 1952. At that time it was entitled simply "I Know an Old Lady." A widely distributed version of the song was released on Brunswick Records in 1953, where it was sung by Burl Ives. Ives' rendition appears on his album, Folk Songs, Dramatic and Humorous -- which debuted in late summer, 1953. The 1961 illustrated book by Rose Bonne also indicates that the lyrics are hers, whereas the music was composed by Alan Mills.


The following is one form of the lyrics, that are representative of the nature of this cumulative lyric:

In some versions, "perhaps she'll die" is replaced with "don't ask me why." Also, "she died of course" is replaced with "of course, of course, she swallowed a horse," leading to yet another cumulative verse that ends the tale.

Representative renditions

  • The song was used for an animated cartoon sung by Burl Ives. Ives's version included an extra verse, involving a pig, following that involving the goat and preceding that involving the cow.
  • The song's lyrics were used as the text of a children's book by Simms Taback. A video version of the song by the publisher was sung by Cyndi Lauper. Both these versions also feature the animals and the artist talking. A cow stands in the middle of one of the pages surrounded by flowers, a carton of milk, a Hershey milk chocolate bar, some different types of cheese, a bar of butter and containers of cream cheese and sour cream. So the famous moral is "never swallow a horse".
  • The song and its title are the basis of a children's book that has been in print since the early 1970s, from illustrator Pam Adams.
  • The song has been adapted into a stage musical written by Steven Lee and produced by Flying Fish Records.
  • A version of this song was recorded by San Francisco punk band, Flipper and released on a 7" single.
  • The song was performed by Judy Collins and Statler and Waldorf with shadow puppets, on a 1977 episode of The Muppet Show. This was parodied in one scene in the 2005 film The Brothers Grimm.
  • Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) said the first lyrics of the song after he learned of his condition in the 1986 version of The Fly.
  • The song appeared in an episode of Desperate Housewives in the season 5 finale.
  • In a PBS television concert Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too, Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow perform this song.
  • In Disney/Pixar's A Bug's Life, a cricket mentions the first verse of this song at the bar.
  • In an Arthur episode entitled "Emily Swallows a Horse," the song is used as an analogy for the increasingly complex and incredible lies that the character must use to cover her original falsehood.
  • The lyrics form part of the theme song for the popular children's show Round the Twist.
  • In Mr. Holland's Opus, Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) is playing and singing the song to his wife and son.
  • The Bill Nye the Science Guy episode "Food Web" featured a segment called "Uncle Fran's Playhouse" which featured part of this song.
  • One of Russell Bates's rejected scripts for Star Trek: The Animated Series, "The Patient Parasites," when it was finally published in Star Trek: The New Voyages 2, included the song's two earliest verses, those involving the fly and the spider in that order, in the "tag," or "epilogue," of the story.
  • In the The Kids in the Hall sketch "Needed Elsewhere", a coked-up Scott Thompson yells at a cat off-camera. When one of the guests replies that she thought he had a dog, he briefly recites a paraphrasing of the song.
  • Pete Seeger did a parody of the song as "I know an old lady who swallowed a lie" at a concert at the Sanders Theater in Boston, Ma in 1980. In the song, towards the very end, she coughs up the lie. (SOURCE: CD " Pete Seeger Singalong" 1981. Smithsonian Folkways Records)

    On a Sesame Street episode,, the lyrics of that song,were changed to "Perhaps She'll Cry" in order to make the song more tamer for children with Telly singing that repeated refrain including the final line: "She Cried Of Course".


    There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly Wikipedia

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