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Green Grow the Russians, Oh!

A song got stuck in my head the other day, but I had forgotten the words. No, wait: I never entirely knew them to begin with. They made no sense, but that didn’t matter, as for the most part they were unintelligible. About all I could clearly recall at first was the line:

I’ll sing you five-oh; green grow the Russians, oh!

And with that, a whole dumpster of brain sludge emptied out into my forebrain. It is a tale (probably) worth telling.

Ok. In the summer of 1963, I went to Boy Scout Camp for the first time. I was 11. It was at Camp Owassipe, the big Scout reservation inland of Muskegon, Michigan. The camp at that point was 11,000 acres huge, and that first year we were at Camp West, one of several camp centers within Owassipe. Camp West was for tent camping (no cabins) and was a CCC project from the ’30s that had not been well-maintained and after thirty years was falling apart. But it was right on a lake and we loved it.

Part of the Camp West experience was eating three meals a day in a big log-lodge mess hall that must have held two hundred tweener boys. The food was hot dogs and hamburgers. We didn’t care; we were lower-middle-class upstarts and had no issues with hot dogs and hamburgers. I don’t remember there being any green vegetables, and I was good with that.

But one thing none of us had ever experienced before was singing songs after meals. There were several college-age junior scoutmasters at Camp West, and they led the digesting masses in several rousing pieces before sending us on our way. I remember only two of the songs, and only one clearly: Rise and Shine. One of the mess hall song leaders was a junior scoutmaster named Jory, so as you can imagine, most of us sang:

Rise and shine and give God your glory, Jory!

Being tweener boys, it was funny even after singing it seventeen hundred times. Fortunately for us, Jory was a good sort, a little overweight and very much the showman. For all we could tell, he was singing it too.

Now, the other song. Our Scout troop was based at our Catholic church, and what we sang at school were either Catholic hymns or odd little songs in songbooks published by the Sisters of Providence, which were more or less junior Catholic hymnals with some kid stuff tossed in for seasoning. (Gregorian chant wasn’t the sort of thing you sang at Scout camp.) I’m guessing that most of the other kids were Protestants, because they knew the songs and we didn’t. The song leaders assumed that we all knew the songs, and didn’t take time to teach them. We learned them by listening to the other kids. Except this time, the lyrics were nowhere near as clear–especially with half the boys horsing around and generating plenty of QRM. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the weirdest kid song ever. This has “Baby Shark” beat all cold: Meet Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!

It was a counting song, like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which gave us some clues, at least. It started out with a grammar puzzle:

I’ll sing you one, oh; green grow the rushes oh!

What is your one-oh?

One is one and all alone and evermore shall be it so.

First of all…rushes? This was pre-Vatican II, and although we were taught Bible stories, we did not read them from the Bible, even baby Moses in the rushes. (This was a Catholic peccadillo that ended with the Council.) The word “rushes” was not in our working vocabulary. We knew them as “cat tails.” However, the Russians loomed large in almost every part of life in that era. They were the emblematic Bad Guys of my grade school ’60s, who we were sure would first beat us to the Moon and then kill us all with nuclear missiles. So we insulted them at every opportunity. Swapping in “Russians” for “rushes” made no objective sense, but it made perfect sense to Cold War era tweener boys.

Alas, we couldn’t quite parse the clause “evermore shall be it so.” Sister Marie Bernard would have circled that in red and taken points off. So we sang “and evermore shall be a stone.” It was a good guess, and better still, we could diagram it if we had to.

Some of the others were obvious, like “Twelve for the Twelve Apostles.” Which made this a God song, just like “Rise and Shine.” Ditto “Ten for the Ten Commandments.” “Eleven for the Eleven Who Went to Heaven” was also obvious, in part because not much rhymes with “eleven” but “seven” and “heaven.” (The word “leaven” was not yet in our vocabulary books.) Were there only eleven people in Heaven? Kind of a lonely place. Our Mass books were crusty with saints, and we had to wonder where they all ended up.

After ten it got a little freaky. “Nine for the Nine Bright Shiners?” What were they? God’s baseball team? “Eight for the April Rainers?” I remember singing this as “April Rangers.” Maybe the April Rainers were God’s farm team. Farmers like rain, no?

“Seven for the Seven Stars in the Sky.” As with the saints in Heaven, this figure seemed a little short, especially since you could see every star there was in rural Michigan night skies in 1963. Maybe the songwriter lived in Chicago, where you might see seven, if you were lucky and had good eyes.

“Six for the Six Proud Walkers.” I believe I heard this one correctly, but that didn’t prevent us from singing “Six for the Six Loud Talkers.” Given that talking in class was a sort of secular mortal sin, we assumed these guys were not among the eleven in Heaven. Besides, Pride was a Capital Sin.

“Five for the symbols at your door.” Hmmm. I heard that word as “sinfuls” which while wholeheartedly Catholic seemed off somehow. Maybe it accounted for the semiregular visits by the Jehovah Witnesses, who much annoyed my very pious mother.

“Four for the Gospel makers.” I’m pretty sure everyone was singing “Gospel Writers,” which at least made sense numerically, and we were back to God territory. (Every writeup admits that some of the lines came in multiple versions.)

“Three, three, arrivals.” Huh? I swear, the first time we sang the song, this came to me as “Please clean the rifles.” “Three, three survivors” was what we ended up singing, lacking any strong clue as to who had survived, nor what trials they had undergone. Without being able to name them, I recalled the three guys who got thrown in a furnace by the Babylonians but survived because Jesus was in there with them, and you did not mess with Jesus.

“Two, two little white boys, dressed in all their green-oh.” I’m also pretty sure this is what everybody was singing, even though the definitive version is “lily-white boys.” Supposedly this is about the two main stars in Gemini, which on bad nights might well be the only stars you could see in Chicago. As for dressing a star in anything, well, you dress the star of your choice. I’ll watch–from a hundred million miles or so.

One, as mentioned earlier, was a stone. If it was all alone, it should have ducked down a Chicago alley, which in 1963 were gravel-paved and where most of our stones came from.

My following two years at Boy Scout Camp were at a much newer campground, which did not have a mess hall. They delivered hot food in giant thermos bottles from a jeep, and we ate at picnic tables. We sang some songs around the central campfire in the evenings, but beyond a somber item about Chief Owassipe none of them have stuck even a little.

Considering “Green Grow the Rushes, Oh”‘s cloudy origins and multitude of verse variations and interpretations, I can’t say we did it much violence. After all, see this, from the song’s entry on Wikipedia:

“The musicologist Cecil Sharp, influential in the folklore revival in England, noted in his 1916 One Hundred English Folksongs that the words are “so corrupt, indeed, that in some cases we can do little more than guess at their original meaning”.

We were from Chicago. Corruption there was so ubiquitous that most people didn’t even notice it. As for guessing, well, we guessed, and our guesses were as good as anybody’s. If it came back to me fifty-five years later, I’d say its evolution as an earworm was very robust. Plus, it propelled me to a long and motley career of writing silly lyrics to well-known songs.

As for the Russians, they were the wrong color, unless they were like bell peppers. You never can tell with Russians.


  1. Mike Weasner says:

    I don’t remember any songs from when I was a Boy Scout back in the early 1960s, but I do remember the hikes, camps, hikes, woodmanship, hikes, merit badges study, hikes, friendships, hikes, cookouts, and hikes. Fun days and nights!

  2. Don Doerres says:

    Three little elephants went out to play,
    on a spider web one day.
    They had such tremendous fun,
    they asked another elephant to come…

    Four little elephants went out to play,
    on a spider web one day.
    They had such tremendous fun,
    they asked another elephant to come…

    We always started with three, with the camp counselor dragging in two campers from the mess hall tables.

  3. Barbara Bennett says:

    Some if the “official” words you cite are slightly different from what I learned. But, for three, it was “Three, three, the rivals”.

    In the same vein there’s the kid saying the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father who art in heaven, how’d you know my name”.

    1. Heh. Hadn’t heard that one. Then there is “But lead a snot into temptation…”

      1. And “All day, all day, all day Maria!” which I heard my friend Ray singing in first grade.

    2. John Hall says:

      “Lead us not into Penn Station, but deliver us from evil.”

  4. Orvan Taurus says:

    We knew them as “cat tails.”

    So THAT’s what “rushes” are? In my peculiar youth, the cat tail stems made fine sticks for rockets… [details omitted for interests of Public Safety].

    1. When I was 10 or 11, the last largish undeveloped piece of land in our neighborhood collected water and grew cat tails in abundance. We took the stalks, broke off the “cat tail” part, and used the stalks as javelins. I remember that they generally flew a little crookedly, or spun, but the occasional one that flew dead straight we took home. We didn’t throw them at each other; we tried to hit targets on the dirt hills where dump trucks had dumped excavation dirt, probably illegally.

      Nobody ever got hurt. It was good cheap fun. My friend Chuck used to yell “Chattanooga!” when he hurled one, something that he never explained. (He was born and grew up in our neighborhood and had almost certainly never been to Chattanooga when he was a small child.)

    2. Carrington Dixon says:

      Orvan, I should have thought that you would have known them by the name we used in my youth, “bull rushes” (which I see is correctly spelled as a single word with only one ‘l’, c’est la vie).

      1. Orvan Taurus says:

        Perhaps similar to how “Brazil” nuts are, as I recall, not called that in Brazil.

        1. Carrington Dixon says:

          And the French do not speak of the “French Horn”, but the English do speak of the “English Horn” (which is neither English nor a horn). 🙂

  5. Orvan Taurus says:

    Seven? Perhaps the ‘Seven Sisters’ of the Pleiades? (Though my unaided [spectacles not counting…] eyes are mighty lucky to see even six of the lot – and even truly minor magnification reveals more).

    1. Most writeups I’ve seen say that that’s what the “seven stars in the sky” verse was about. I never saw more than six, even when I was a young man with good eyes. Of course, almost any scope will reveal a dozen or more. Through my 10″ newt I got a hundred, and a glimpse of their associated nebulosity.

      I think that the song was an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem with pagan roots that got “Christianized” like so much other ancient stuff. Local gods became local saints, etc. Given how little we know of its origins, the song could mean almost anything.

  6. Spencer Arnold says:

    We got taught a song in Cub Scouts that made us sound like “Camp Run-a-muck” and that ended with calls to build a pyre and burn all the leaders (you even got to customise the song with who you wanted to put on the top). As far as I can recall, no arsonists were created as a result of this particular ditty. Such was Scouting in the 1970s in New Zealand.

  7. Lee Hart says:

    Ah yes; filk songs! Every kid probably knows a dozen of them. I enjoy listening, singing, and even writing them, too. I have some of mine on the web at

    Often, the corrupted versions are more memorable than the original. Let’s not forget Pogo’s “Deck the halls with Boston Charlie…”

  8. Tom says:

    Wonder if the song was from the Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796)
    “Green Grow the Rashes”

    Burns is best well known for the classic “Auld Lang Syne”

    1. Apart from that one line, the songs really don’t have much in common. But thanks for pointing it out; it’s a bit of Burns I’d never read before. And here it is in case anybody’s interested:

  9. Grotius says:

    Any more kids don’t know any singalong folk songs. I learned all the WWII Army Air Corps ones in the seventies because I was Civil Air Patrol, and a lot of naughty parodies to popular I-VI-V twelve bar songs of the day because I could play them, and no others, on steel guitar. I was given an old lap steel guitar at a time when they were considered useless and the remains of an amp. It was an old Gibson that was wired like a bad version of an ARRL Radio Handbook, so an old guy I knew had me gut it out and rebuild it like a Fender, copying the tagboard and everything. No one back then was into DIY guitar amps, by the way. Since the steel guitar was tuned to an open chord I figured out that I could play a few songs pretty easily, using a Lycoming piston pin for a slide and my bare fingers since you couldn’t find fingerpicks at the local music store.

    But then high school came and that was considered uncool. Coolness wrecks everything. By the time small tube amps, lap steel guitar, and working on your own amps became a cool hobby I was married, had kids, and a full time job, but I’ve often thought that if I’d known back then about the market for “boutique” music stuff that would unfold, I could have been a guitar industry tycoon.

    Of course, the ‘microcomputer’ industry would have made me a hundred times as much. But you couldn’t get a JOB in that in the late seventies or early eighties, at least in the Midwest. I had a wife, a kid, and a second on the way, so I went to a trade school and got an associate’s degree in Computer Science which consisted of IBM Mainframe COBOL, RPG and a little assembler. When the market for that got crummy, a friend of mine suggested I apply to the railroad. I made more money for less stress as a craft railroader than I did programming and retired out with a good pension last year, so now I can tinker with all the stuff I wanted to in the seventies.

    From what I can see of programming, the best environments, languages and operating systems to learn are….the ones everyone uses. Anything else is a hobby.

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