London Bridge

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London Bridge Image

“London Bridge” (also known as “My Fair Lady” or “London Bridge Is Falling Down”) is a traditional English nursery rhyme and singing game, which is found in different versions all over the world. It deals with the depredations of London Bridge and attempts, realistic or fanciful, to repair it. It may date back to bridge rhymes and games of the Late Middle Ages, but the earliest records of the rhyme in English are from the seventeenth century. The lyrics were first printed in close to their modern form in the mid-eighteenth century and became popular, particularly in Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century.

The game

The rhyme is often used in a children’s singing game, which exists in a wide variety of forms, with additional verses. Most versions are similar to the actions used in the rhyme “Oranges and Lemons“. The most common is that two players hold hands and make an arch with their arms while the others pass through in single file. The “arch” is then lowered at the song’s end to “catch” a player. In the United States it is common for two teams of those that have been caught to engage in a tug of war. In England until the nineteenth century the song may have been accompanied by a circle dance, but arch games are known to have been common across late medieval Europe.

Five of nine versions published by Alice Gomme in 1894 included references to a prisoner who has stolen a watch and chain. This may be a late nineteenth century addition from another game called “Hark the Robbers”, or “Watch and Chain”. This rhyme is sung to the same tune and may be an offshoot of “London Bridge” or the remnant of a distinct game. In one version the first two verses have the lyrics:

Who has stole my watch and chain,
Watch and chain, watch and chain;
Who has stole my watch and chain,
My fair lady?

Off to prison you must go,
You must go, you must go;
Off to prison you must go,
My fair lady.

 

"London Bridge" Lyrics


There is considerable variation in the lyrics of the rhyme. The most frequently used first verse is:

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

In the version quoted by Iona and Peter Opie in 1951 the full lyrics were:

London Bridge is broken down,
Broken down, broken down.
London Bridge is broken down,
My fair lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair lady.

Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair lady.

Bricks and mortar will not stay,
Will not stay, will not stay,
Bricks and mortar will not stay,
My fair lady.

Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair lady.

Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair lady.

Build it up with silver and gold,
Silver and gold, silver and gold,
Build it up with silver and gold,
My fair lady.

Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Stolen away, stolen away,
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
My fair lady.

Set a man to watch all night,
Watch all night, watch all night,
Set a man to watch all night,
My fair lady.

Suppose the man should fall asleep,
Fall asleep, fall asleep,
Suppose the man should fall asleep?
My fair lady.

Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
Smoke all night, smoke all night,
Give him a pipe to smoke all night,
My fair lady.

"London Bridge" Chords


 C      /         /       /     G      /     C       /
London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down


 /      /         /       /    G   /    C
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady


 /        /       /        /      G        /      C        /
Build it up with iron and steel, Iron and steel, iron and steel,

 /        /       /        /      G   /    C
Build it up with iron and steel,  My fair lady.

"London Bridge" Origins

Similar rhymes can be found across Europe, pre-dating the records in England. These include “Knippelsbro Går Op og Ned” from Denmark, “Die Magdeburger Brück” from Germany, “pont chus” from sixteenth-century France; and “Le porte”, from fourteenth-century Italy. It is possible that the rhyme was acquired from one of these sources and then adapted to fit the most famous bridge in England.

One of the earliest references to the rhyme in English is in the comedy The London Chaunticleres, printed in 1657, but probably written about 1636,[9] in which the dairy woman Curds states that she had “danced the building of London-Bridge” at the Whitsun Ales in her youth, although no words or actions are mentioned. Widespread familiarity with the rhyme is suggested by its use by Henry Carey in his satire Namby Pamby (1725), as:

Namby Pamby is no Clown,

London Bridge is broken down:
Now he courts the gay Ladee
Dancing o’er The Lady-Lee.

The oldest extant version could be that recalled by a correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1823, which he claimed to have heard from a woman who was a child in the reign of Charles II (r. 1660–85) and had the lyrics:

London Bridge is broken down,
Dance over the Lady Lea;
London Bridge is broken down,
With a gay lady (la-dee).

The subsequent verses followed this form, each repeating in the lines below in place of “London bridge is broken down”:

Then we must build it up again.
What shall we build it up withal?
Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel will bend and break.
Build it up with wood and stone,
Wood and stone will fall away.
Then we must set a man to watch,
Suppose the man should fall asleep?
Then we must put a pipe in his mouth,
Suppose the pipe should fall and break?
Then we must set a dog to watch,
Suppose the dog should run away?
Then we must chain him to a post.

The earliest printed English version is in the oldest extant collection of nursery rhymes, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, printed by John Newbery in London (c. 1744), with the following text:

London Bridge
Is Broken down,
Dance over my Lady Lee.
London Bridge
Is Broken down
With a gay Lady.

How shall we build
It up again,
Dance over my Lady Lee, &c.

Build it up with
Gravel, and Stone,
Dance over my Lady Lee, &c.

Gravel, and Stone,
Will wash away,
Dance over my Lady Lee, &c.

Build it up with
Iron, and Steel,
Dance over my Lady Lee, &c.

Iron, and Steel,
Will bend, and Bow,
Dance over my Lady Lee, &c.

Build it up with
Silver, and Gold,
Dance over my Lady Lee, &c.

Silver, and Gold
Will be stolen away,
Dance over my Lady Lee, &c.

Then we’l set
A man to Watch,
Dance over my Lady Lee.
Then we’l set
A man to Watch,
With a gay Lady.

A version from James Ritson’s Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784) is similar but replaces the last verse with:

Build it up with stone so strong,
Dance o’er my Lady lee,
Huzza! ’twill last for ages long,
With a gay lady.

"London Bridge" Youtube Videos


 

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