“My hat, it has three corners…”

I learned this song as a child, as many of us probably did at camp or elsewhere.

My hat, it has three corners,
Three corners has my hat.
And had it not three corners,
It would not be my hat!

Or, in German:

Mein Hut, der hat drei Ecken,
Drei Ecken hat mein Hut,
Und hätt er nicht drei Ecken,
So wär es nicht mein Hut.

It’s sung to an old Italian folk tune, “The Carnival of Venice“:

Only recently, thanks to a Facebook post by a respected friend and colleague, did I learn that the tune has a lot more attached to it than one simple verse.

The starkly minimalist play by Samuel Beckett, “En Attendant Godot” (Waiting for Godot) contains the following song in French, which is endlessly iterative:

Un chien vint dans l’office
Et prit une andouillette;
Alors à coups de louche
Le chef le mit en miettes.

Les autres chiens en ce voyant
Vite vite l’ensevelirent
Au pied d’une croix en bois blanc
Où le passant pouvait lire:

Un chien vint dans l’office…

A dog went into the kitchen
And stole a piece of bread;
The cook came out with a ladle
And beat him till he was dead.

Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb,
And wrote upon the tombstone
For the eyes of dogs to come:

A dog went into the kitchen… (repeat forever)

There are other translations of this song as well; some claim that the German version is the original, which Beckett appropriated for his play:

Ein Mops kam in die Küche
Und stahl dem Koch ein Ei.
Da nahm der Koch den Löffel
Und schlug den Mops entzwei.

So kamen alle Möpse
Und gruben ihm ein Grab
Und setzten einen Grabstein,
Auf dem geschrieben stand:

Ein Mops kam in die Küche…

(Like most folk songs, there are numerous versions with slightly varying words; there is a bawdy German song, non-iterative, that begins “Ich bin ein junges Weibchen” that uses the same melody as well.)

And here’s the Hebrew version:

אל המטבח בא כלב
ועצם שם חטף
אז הטבח חבט בו
הרג אותו עם כף

כל הכלבים אז באו
וקבר לו חפרו
ומצבה הקימו
עליה הם כתבו:

אל המטבח בא כלב…

El hamitbach ba kelev
Ve-etzem sham chataf
Az hatabach chavat bo
Harag oto im kaf.

Kol haklavim az ba’u
Vekever lo chafru
Umatzeva hekimu
Aleiha hem katvu.

El hamitbach ba kelev…

It is interesting to note that all of these versions can be sung to the same tune, although it is not always used in every interpretation of “Godot.”

The concept of the eternally iterating song poked my memory, and I recalled that when I was a young child, my mother and I would end up rolling in laughter after doing this one for what seemed like hours:

Twas a dark and stormy night!
Three robbers sat in a cave!
“Tell us a story!” said one,
And this is how it begun:

‘Twas a dark and stormy night…

Mother was an actress, and a good one – so every iteration took on a different character when it was her turn.

Finally, there’s this gem written by writer/composer Norman Martin in 1988:

Be grateful. Be grateful, I say, that I didn’t choose to post the 10-hour version!

Many thanks to my colleagues in the translation community for the various versions (whom I shall not name unless they tell me they wish to be identified!)

The Old Wolf has spoken.

2 responses to ““My hat, it has three corners…”

  1. I learned it this way in German:

    Mein hut, er hat drei Ecken.
    Drei Ecken hat mein Hut.
    Und wenn er keine drei Eck’n hat,
    Dann ist es nicht mein Hut.

    Of course, you have to remember that I learned this somewhere between second and fifth grade, and cases and tenses were pretty much a mystery to me.

    The story was taught to me like this:

    It was a dark and stormy night. ‘Round the campfire, burning bright, sat brigands large and brigands small. Said they to their trusted lieutenant, “Antonio, tell us a story.” Antonio began as follows: . . .

    I am now teaching it to my grandchildren. They aren’t as good at doing different voices as I am–yet!

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