Itsy Bitsy Spider

‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ is one of the most popular nursery rhymes today. It has an interesting and unclear history, awash with alternative lyrics and foreign language adaptions. The song has become particularly popular due to the finger movements which go along with each line.

 

Origins of Itsy Bitsy Spider

‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ first appeared in publications in the early 1900s. It was published with alternative lyrics, to those which are popular today, in Camp and Camino in Lower California in 1910. In this publication it was referred to as ‘Spider Song.’  This version of the text was a little more explicit than a reader might be used to. Rather than using the phrase “itsy bitsy “the words were “blooming, bloody.” The words were later changed to make it more child-friendly. Additionally, the spider was climbing within its own web rather than up a waterspout. This simple change is interesting to consider. Why, in following versions, is the spider climbing up a waterspout?

The lyrics to Camp and Camino in Lower California version went as follows: 

Oh, the blooming, bloody spider went up the spider web,

The blooming, bloody rain came down and washed the spider out,

The blooming, bloody sun came out and dried up all the rain,

And the blooming, bloody spider came up the web again.

Other versions of the song refer to the spider as “Incey Wincy,” rather than “Itsy Bitsy,” such as in Australia and Great Britain. Alternatively, the waterspout is sometimes the spout of a teapot. 

More versions were published over the next 40 years and one of the modern versions appeared in Western Folklore by the California Folklore Society in 1948 another was published in American Folk Songs for children that same year.

One version of the contemporary lyrics are as follows: 

The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout.

Down came the rain

and washed the spider out.

Out came the sun

and dried up all the rain

and the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

 

Analysis of Itsy Bitsy Spider

As with most nursery thymes, ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ has a very structured rhyme scheme. The lines follow a pattern of ABACBB. The repeating ‘B’ sound provides a line of unity that runs through the short six lines song. Additionally, the use and reuse of the word “rain” at the end of lines two and five is a great example of repetition. Just as the spider is forced to climb up and is washed back down again so too does is rain appear at the beginning of the poem and then again at the end. 

There are a few other techniques that this version of the text makes use of. For instance lines two, four and six all begin with the word “and.” This is known as anaphora. It is a technique in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of multiple lines either in succession or not. It also helps create a rhythmic repetition to the words. This makes them more fun to hear and more fun to say out loud. 

The meter of the text is also fairly structured. Line two and four both contain six syllables. Lines three and five contains six.  Finally, lines one and six contain almost double, at 14. The coordination of the syllables in these lines is not a coincidence. It’s vastly important within nursery rhymes that there are enough elements to attract and hold a child’s attention. The sound should also be soothing enough, but remain interesting.

 

Popularization

Since its first publication, and the solidification of its lyrics, ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’  has become one of the most popular nursery rhymes. It’s popularity is proven through its almost universally recognition its appearance in vastly different kinds of media. It can be heard in The Simpsons, South Park, Dora the Explorer, Criminal Minds and even a Series of Unfortunate Events. Dozens of musical renditions of the song have been recorded. Additionally, the song has been translated into the innumerable languages and performed in many different cultures. The melody appears, with different words and other non-English-speaking countries as well. 

 

Finger Play 

Something that makes this song particularly interesting, and has helped with its popularity is the finger play that goes along with the singing of the song. For example when one sings the part about the water washing the spider out in line three the singer, generally if performing the song for or with a child, sweeps their hands back-and-forth, mimicking the movement of the water. Then later on in the song, when the spider climbs up the spout again the performer usually wiggles their fingers upward as if the spider is climbing up the spout.

These finger movements were originally introduced to the song in order to keep a child’s attention, and to help them work on their locomotive skills

 

Interpretation

Because there is no clear writer of this particular nursery rhyme many lovers of poetry, song and children’s literature have sought to interpret the lines in different ways. One of the most common interpretations is that the poem is an allegory.. This is a piece of text that has a hidden meaning, usually moral or political.

 In this case some consider the spider and its frustrating climb up and quick descent down the waterspout represents the struggle of the lower classes. The waterspout itself has come to represent, for some, success. The poem can be read into further.  One could find meaning for the rain, as any force trying to keep the poor down, and the sun, as a kind of hope, false or real, always taunting or inspiring the spider to continue its climb.

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