This article originally appeared in Remember magazine, October 1995, p. 7, titled "A Song Is Born: The Ditty That Became A Hitty".

"Where did those crazy words come from?" That's the first thing people ask me when they learn that my father, Jerry Livingston, wrote the music to "Mairzy Doats," a novelty song that burst onto the national scene just over 50 years ago.

Once you hear it, the irresistibly catchy refrain is impossible to forget: "Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey, a kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?" But these words are not nonsense rhymes. Separate each syllable carefully, speak slowly and here's what you get: "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy."

The song was inspired by Milton Drake, one of my dad's songwriting partners. Drake had long been familiar with the phrase "mares eat oats, does eat oats," and so on, which many children learned as a nursery rhyme. These words can be traced back to centuries-old English ditties, one of which proclaimed: "In fir tar is, in oak none is, in mud eel is, in clay none is, goat eat ivy, mare eat oats." Slide those first words together and you sound like you're speaking pseudo-Latin!

Early in 1942, Drake suggested that he, my dad and Al Hoffman, the third member of the team, have a go at turning "mares eat oats" into an appropriately nutty song at one of the daily brainstorming sessions they held at the Brill Building in New York's Tin Pan Alley. It took only a few days of tossing words back and forth, with time out for creative lunch breaks over blintzes and coffee at Lindy's delicatessen, before they succeeded.

However, no publisher was willing to take a chance on a tune with such crazy words and none of the leading bands of the time would touch it. Eventually, the team gave up, leaving a wrinkled copy of the song buried in my father's piano bench for a year. But then, late in 1943, my dad brought the piece to Al Trace, a bandleader whose "Silly Symphonists" were famed for the comic antics they inflicted on songs they performed.

Trace immediately agreed that "Mairzy Doats" was perfect for his cornball musicians and he began featuring the song in the shows he broadcast from New York's Hotel Dixie. In order to stimulate audience involvement, Trace put the words on a large blackboard, then, like a professor giving a lecture, led everyone through the words with a pointer.

"Mairzy Doats" became an overnight sensation and was quickly picked up by Miller Music, a leading publisher. Several recordings soon followed, including a snappy version by The Merry Macs. The song was spread around the world during World War II by American troops who sang it when marching off ships at foreign ports. Soldiers also used the lyrics as passwords.

Since then, "Mairzy Doats" has been used in movies like Radio Days and TV shows such as All In The Family as an evocative reminder of the relief and pleasure it brought to many in tense times. The wacky song that nobody wanted has come a long way.

Since this article was written, I have become aware of additional research into the origins of the Mairzy Doats lyrics done by Dale B. J. Randall of Duke University. His findings were published as "American 'Mairzy' Dottiness, Sir John Fastolf's Secretary, and the 'Law French' of a Caroline Cavalier" in American Speech, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 1995), pp. 361-370. The gist of the article is that the earliest written trace of words similar to those in the lyrics may be found in the Collectiones medicinales (c. 1460) of William Worcester, an inveterate note-taker and secretary to one Sir John Fastolf in the reign of Henry VI - yes, one of Shakespeare's inspirations for Falstaff. In a passage otherwise devoted to information about birds, fish & melting steel comes this humorous, slightly obscene couplet:

Is thy pott enty, Colelent? Is gote eate yvy. Mare eate ootys. Is thy cocke lyke owrs?

Worcester is surely drawing on even older oral sources. Randall also finds a reference to "Kiddleeatiue, Mare'leatoates" in a 1635 play by William Cavendish, who is here making fun of the high-falutin ways of English lawyers of the time who used a kind of fractured French in their briefs. And so this word play bounces through the centuries like a cultural virus, probably kept alive through the playfulness of children, until it lands in the lap of Milton Drake.

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