The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #12823   Message #105855
Posted By: Wolfgang
17-Aug-99 - 12:26 PM
Thread Name: Origins: Ten Little Indians
My main reason for posting this is to provide the original lyrics for Ten Little Indians. But then I found the surrounding story so interesting that I'll bring you the gist of it. If you go on reading you'll find out about the fairly recent American origin of a British nursery rhyme, about plagiarism, about PC language, about an Agatha Christie novel closely following a nursery rhyme which was actually a song, about the retitling and rewriting of the novel for the American edition, and why some of you may recollect a happy end of the murder mystery and others may recollect a bleak end. Most of the information to come, all citations, and the two songs are from D. Sanders, L. Lovallo, The Agatha Christie Companion, a book which in general cannot be considered a source for song lyrics. I have decided to use the N-word where it is unavoidable in my opinion, but to restrict its use to the absolute minimum. I apologise for any offence taken.

Agatha Christie loved constructing novels to fit nursery rhymes ("Three blind mice", "One, two buckle your shoe", "Five little pigs" are further examples). She tried to follow closely the rhyme in order to give further clues to the knowledgeable. The book Ten Little Niggers (original title 1939) was no exception:

"The so-called nursery rhyme on which Christie based her murder plot is actually a popular Victorian minstrel show song, which was written by Frank Green to music by Marc Mason and published in England in February 1869. Green wrote the song for G. W. 'Pony' Moore, a comic tenor with the Christy Minstrels who performed in St. James Hall, Picadilly. The song became a classic and was especially popular among children, hence its 'nursery rhyme' status. Christie includes the complete rhyme in chapter 2 of the book....The reader will find that the ensuing murders follow the poem quite closely and cleverly; the 'red herring' which swallowed boy number four is not an alteration of the text, though Christie must have found the appearance of the phrase quite amusing.

"Frank Green's lyrics were actually an adaptation of the American comic song and chorus Ten Little Indians by Philadelphia songwriter Septimus Winner. Winner's lyrics were published in London in July 1868 and (in the days before copyright) were soon adapted for British audiences."

(Septimus Winner, 1868)

Ten little Injuns standin' in a line,
One toddled home and then there were nine;
Nine little Injuns swingin' on a gate,
One tumbled off and then there were eight.

One little, two little, three little, four little,
Five little Injun boys,
Six little, seven little, eight little, nine little,
Ten little Injun boys.

Eight little Injuns gayest under heav'n,
One went to sleep and then there were seven;
Seven little Injuns cutting up their tricks,
One broke his neck and then there were six.

Six little Injuns kickin' all alive,
One kicked the bucket and then there were five;
Five little Injuns on a cellar door,
One tumbled in and then there were four.

Four little Injuns up on a spree,
One he got fuddled and then there were three;
Three little Injuns out in a canoe,
One tumbled overboard and then there were two.

Two little Injuns foolin' with a gun,
One shot t'other and then there was one;
One little Injun livin' all alone,
He got married and then there were none.

Now the adapted (plagiarised) version on which Christie's novel is based.

(Frank Green, 1869)

...went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

...sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

...travelling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.

...chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

...playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

...going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

...going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

...walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

...left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.

Christie later rewrote the story into a play, but this time taking the last verse from Winner's version in order to give the play a happy end (marriage, which at that time was considered to be a happy end). There's more than one film about the story, some of them based on the play, some based on the novel, and there are also novel editions with the other ending. That's why some of you may recollect two people walking off happily together after a nightmare and some may recollect an island with ten bodies, the death of which remains a complete mystery until a bottle drifting in the ocean is found.

"When the American edition was published in 1940, Dodd, Mead rightly decided that the original title could be construed as racially offensive, even though it was taken directly from the British song. The book appeared as And then there were none [the last words of the song]. In the intervening years, American editions have also been titled 'Ten Little Indians' and 'The Nursery Rhyme Murders'."

The avoiding of the offensive word also necessitated text changes, at most places 'Indian(s)' merely replacing the term from the British original, like printing Green's lyrics (that were needed in order to understand the plot) but with Winner's 'Indians'. At some places, there had to be more changes, for instance when the origin of the name of the island on which the plot is set, 'Indian Island' in the American edition, is explained. At very few places, the American editors decided to keep the offensive word in the text which made, e.g., Christie's play of words to a barely understandable "Indian Island, eh? There's a nigger in the woodpile".

My paperback edition (printed in Britain) has the original text (as far as I know) but the title is taken from the American edition, 'And then there were none'.

The German title still is 'Zehn kleine Negerlein', from a German children song which to me sounds like nothing but a translation of Green's lyrics. In Germany, the last line of the song cannot be taken as an innocent title, for in German, the song ends with the words 'da waren's wieder zehn' (and then there were ten).