“This Little Piggie Went to Market” is a mock-lullaby based on the famous nursery rhyme and game of playing with an infant’s toes. One might, therefore, expect it to have had a fairly innocuous origin. Instead, one finds that the song was composed for the 1934 American movie 8 Girls in a Boat, which tells the story of a teenage girl at a boarding school in Switzerland who finds that she is pregnant and contemplates suicide.1
These unwholesome themes are typical of movies made in the period before the so-called “Hays Code” went into effect and ushered in an era of Hollywood self-censorship. All the more representative of the pre-Code period are the numerous scenes portraying teenage girls exercising in swimsuits, who at one point go so far as to blast each other with water from hoses and giggle with glee. The filmmakers seem to have sobered up from their gratuitous portrayal of the youthful feminine form at some point and had the girls of the school sing Coslow and Lewis’s “This Little Piggie Went to Market” as they have their evening glass of milk before bed (and instrumental versions of the theme can be heard at other points in the score). Perhaps we can take the lyrics “I dream and pray one day I’ll say / To a cute little piggie of my own, / ‘This little piggie went to market, / And this little piggie stayed home'” as a hint that this salacious and yet somehow quite forgettable film will have a happy ending, as it does? But only, of course, after considerably more rope-skipping and swimming.
“This Little Piggie Went to Market.” Lyrics by Sam Coslow, music by Harold “Lefty” Lewis. Composed for the Paramount picture 8 Girls in a Boat (1934). Recorded in London on February 2, 1934 by Ambrose and His Orchestra with vocalist Elsie Carlisle. Brunswick 01694.
Video by David Weavings
The Ambrose version of “This Little Piggie Went to Market” features an impressive arrangement that gives the impression of a pastoral lullaby, although at points it grows so powerful and insistent that it almost jars with the simplicity of the vocal refrain. Elsie Carlisle’s cooing intonation of the latter is a sincere depiction of the hope of future motherhood. One can entirely understand why Ambrose chose her, only a few months later, to sing in his version of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” (especially as she had already made a lovely version of that other nursery-themed song with her own name on the label). This is just one of many cases where the coquettish flapper Elsie of the late 1920s is converted to the more sentimental tastes of the new decade — but the conversion is not an entirely unhappy one. Her versatility as an artist who can evoke a convincing character in under a minute and twenty seconds is on display here, and one can enjoy it even while admitting that the song is rather saccharine.
“This Little Piggie Went to Market.” Recorded in London on February 7, 1934 by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment. Decca F. 3887 mx. GB6532-2.
It seems highly likely that the orchestral accompaniment to Elsie’s solo version of “This Little Piggie Went to Market” consisted of members of Ambrose’s band, as they had been recording at Decca’s studios that day, and the two record matrices preceding this recording are theirs.2 The arrangement is comparatively subdued, leaving more room for Elsie’s gentle interpretation of the simple lyrics. All the same, the instrumental interpretation of the theme is quite beautiful and enjoyable.
“This Little Piggie Went to Market” was recorded in late December 1933 in Los Angeles by the Pickens Sisters on a Victor transcription, and in New York in early 1933 by Victor Young and His Orchestra (v. Jane Vance), Freddy Martin and His Orchestra (v. Helen Ward), and Chick Bullock and His Levee Loungers. In London it was recorded in early 1934 by Jack Payne and His Band (v. Jack Payne), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (v. Al Bowlly), Harry Leader and His Band (with an unknown vocalist), and Howard Flynn and His Orchestra (v. Harry Bentley).