Rediscovering a Dark Children’s Song

Print this entry

Our 14-year-old daughter was watching another police procedural show the other night. The Abster is hooked on “NCIS” and similar programs that invariably show a corpse cut open on a slab in an autopsy lab. At the moment, she plans to be a forensic psychologist so that she can solve the types of mysteries she watches on television. We are fine with whatever career she chooses, but I likely won’t be visiting her at work. I have no interest in seeing a dead person slit open from stem to sternum.

During the show, a whacky Target commercial came on with folks running around in brightly colored clothing. In the background a song played in French. Though I haven’t thought of this tune in many decades, I immediately began singing along.

           Alouette, gentillle alouette

           Alouette, je te plumerai

OK, I had to look this up to spell it correctly, but I was singing along spot-on with the commercial. Both Abster and my Beautiful Mystery Companion were staring at me as if I had inexplicably started speaking in tongues. I explained that I grew up in New Hampshire singing that nursery rhyme at the knees of my French-Canadian grandmother. Hearing that song again evoked sweet memories of my long-dead grandparents, of wintry days spent in front of the fire in their small house out in the country in Hopkinton, with its flowing brook in the backyard and the covered bridge my grandfather built across those waters.

             Je te plumerai le bec

             Je te plumerai le bec

            Et let bec, et le bec

            Alouette, Alouette!

            Ah! Ah! Ah!

I watched the commercial with bemusement, singing along as men and women behaved outrageously. One character uses a leaf blower to knock the clothes off a family.  Voila!, they’re wearing swimwear and shades.

I heard plenty of French growing up, between my grandparents and other French-Canadian kinfolks and neighbors. Allenstown, the hamlet in which I spent my childhood, was filled with folks whose surnames were Courtemanche, Boudreau, LeBlanc, Rousseau. My mother’s maiden name was Bourque. My grandmother in particular lapsed into French quite often. My great-grandmother, who we visited a few times in Sherbrooke, Canada, in the Quebec province, refused to speak anything except French when we visited. Rumor was she could speak English just fine but refused to do so.  This was problematic since the only French I had retained, besides “Alouette,” were a smattering of curse words my cousins taught me. I still recall a couple but will keep them to myself.

My BMC asked what the song was about. I confessed that I had no idea, even though I could sing the song in only slightly mangled French. It was time to go to Google.

There I made a startling discovery. This sweet nursery rhyme, which warms the cockles of my middle-aged soul, is about dismembering little birds, body part by body part. Thus the first pair of verses quoted above in English mean:

             Lark, gentle lark

            Lark, I will pull your feathers off

The second set of lines in English are:

I will pluck your bill.

I will pluck your bill.

And your bill, and your bill

Lark, lark

Ah! Ah! Ah!

Suddenly, this little ditty now featured nationwide in a Target commercial and sung by French-Canadian children for generations takes on a sinister tint. Alouette refers to a type of skylark. The song proceeds to describe pulling feathers off the poor bird’s tail, back, wings, neck and head, with each body part taking up an entire verse. I’m surprised PETA or another animal-rights group hasn’t started picketing Target for featuring a song about animal cruelty in a television commercial.

I realize some English-language nursery rhymes are also violent. Humpty Dumpty cracks up. The farmer’s wife amputates three rodents’ tails. Then there’s Jack breaking his crown, which likely necessitated a visit to the dentist’s office. But all this feather plucking is making me queasy, since singing “Alouette” implies I’m going to be doing the plucking. The day I have to start plucking birds for the next meal is when I go full-time vegetarian. I want my meat shrink-wrapped and not looking like some warm, fuzzy animal. Call me hypocritical. I’m OK with that.

I don’t really take umbrage at the song’s contents but do find it interesting that no adult actually told me what the song was about. As a child, I would have likely sung with even greater gusto: Je to plumerai le bec! That is how young boys are: the grosser the better.

Now, if I could just get that blasted song out of my head. It is like a broken record, streaming through my consciousness again and again:

             Je te plumerai la tete.

             Je te plumerai la tete.

            Et les yeux. Et les yeux.

            Et le bec. Et le bec.

            Alouette, Alouette!

You can Google (unless you already know French) to translate the last passage. I can’t bear to talk about it anymore.

Print this entry

1 Comment

  • Joe McCarthy


    Ha! Ha! Ha! (for ten minutes) My daughter's mother-in-law is a Quebeqese lady and she taught her children and anyone else who wanted to learn to sing that ditty (Irish). But no one remembers ever being given the translation. I guess you could say that it is one of the most well kept secrets of all time. Joe

Leave a reply

Fields marked with * are required

 Cancel Reply