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"Joy to the World, Our Teacher's Dead": What the Hell Is That All About?

A couple of years back I got obsessed with finding out the origin of "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells." Believe it or not I was actually able to track it down to pretty definitively to a single 5th-grade classroom in Dunkirk, Indiana. It's made we wonder what other interesting Christmas parodies I could explore. This brings me to...

Joy to the world, the teacher's dead

We barbecued her head!

What happened to the body?

We flushed it down the potty!

And round and round it went,

And round and round it went

And rouuund and round and round it went

That's the most popular parody version of "Joy to the World," Isaac Watts' hymn based on Psalm 98 and now a classic Christmas carol. Other versions include one where the principal ends up lynched from a flagpole and a UK/Australian-specific rendition where the rhyme scheme is centered around "loo" instead of "potty."

So where does it come from? Well, like "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells," it's tempting to lay it on The Simpsons and call it a day. Not this reporter. I only phone it in when steampunk is involved.

Nonetheless, the most popular version of the song was sung by Nelson Muntz in the 1996 episode "Lisa's Date With Destiny," in which she develops a crush on the bully for his rebellious nature. It's not a very good episode, but Nelson does rock the ever-loving hell out of the tune so it's easy to see how the appearance could have cemented its place in the public mind.

However, it's almost definitely older than that. For instance, there's another variation that replaces a generic school setting with Barney the Purple dinosaur, who debuted in 1992. Granted, that doesn't mean the song first appears there. After all, Barney still shows up every day on PBS Sprout even though no new episodes have been shot since 2009.

Still, the fact that there doesn't seem to be many variations on the Barney versions beyond subject and gender change seems to indicate that the parody was already a well-established schoolground chant by the time Barney hit popularity. I certainly remember singing it in elementary school, which would have been sometime between 1988 and 1993. I'm sure others my age remember it as well.

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Unfortunately, unlike with "Batman Smells," I wasn't able to track down a more definitive origin, but I did find more people obsessed with what the song says about the children who sing it.

Joseph Thomas, author of the book Poetry's Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children's Poetry, took a very deep look at the chant from a poetical standpoint.

"The teacher's head is a metonym for the mind and the authority that insists that the children sit still and develop theirs, so too is the school that houses that authority," he writes.

Basically the violent song is a result of resentment towards the oh-so-smarts and the do-what-I-says. Thomas himself draws his examples from a previous collection of such tunes by Josepha Sherman and T.K.F. Weisskopf called Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: The Subversive Folklore of Childhood. That book came out in 1995, and was obviously compiled even earlier, making the Simpsons claim completely void. Even Sherman and Weisskopf don't detail where the song might have originated, though they do mention a Groundhog's Day variation I'd never heard of.

Until another folklorist decides to look into the matter we're forced to assume that the first recorded reference to "Joy to the World, The Teacher's Dead" comes from the early '90s, possibly somewhere in Connecticut where Josepha Sherman lived and worked.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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