The Inn of Six Degrees of Separation

Six degrees of separation between Dr Barnardo and John Travolta.

  1. Thomas John Barnardo was an Irish philanthropist. DrbarnardoWhile training as a doctor in London in the 1860s, he became aware of the miserable plight of the many homeless children in the city’s slums. He established the first of “Dr Barnardo’s Homes” for children in that city in 1867. Providing housing and education for poor and disadvantaged children became Barnardo’s life’s work, and he gave up his original ambition to be a missionary in China.
  2. Someone who did go to China as a missionary was Gladys Aylward, who was an Englishwoman of strong Christian faith. She was in China in the chaotic Inn_Of_Sixth_Happyears leading up to the Second World War, where she did a lot of brave and humane things. Her experiences were the basis for a novel by Alan Burgess, called The Small Woman. In 1958, this novel was turned into a film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. The film, which was a huge success, ends with Aylward leading a group of dozens of Chinese children to safety, evading Japanese soldiers. While they march, the children sing “This Old Man” …
  3. Which was a children’s counting song with a nonsense chorus, the first written version of which dates from 1870, but which is certainly much older than that. The chorus goes:

With a knick-knack paddywhack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home

The song is now universally known, but had been relatively obscure until used in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the soundtrack to which was a huge hit.

  1. Taking advantage of this popularity, Dr Barnardo’s Homes – by this time the most important charity caring for children in the United Kingdom and many other parts of the former British Empire, released a fundraising record, with some Barnardo’s children singing, and an orchestral backing provided by …0076 label
  2. Bill Shepherd, who was a well-known British bandleader and arranger. As you will hear, he was good: he takes a playground chant and using rich instrumentation and what was, for 1958, complex mixing creates something exciting. Bill Shepherd later spent a few years living in Australia, where he became a director of Festival Records and throughBGs that company met a young band called the Bee Gees. Shepherd liked the Gibb brothers’ work, and became their orchestral arranger. Throughout the late sixties, his arrangements were an integral part in the Bee Gees becoming an international success. His association with them ended in 1972, which meant that he missed out on being involved in producing the staggeringly successful 1977 soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever
  3. Starring John Travolta.SNF


  • Artist: Dr Barnardo’s Children and the Bill Shepherd Orchestra
  • Single Title: This Old Man (Nick Nack Paddy Whack) / The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness
  • Track: Side A “This Old Man (Nick Nack Paddy Whack)”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Pye Nixa 7N.15180
  • Manufactured in: England
  • Year: 1958

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There’s something about Mary

The first sound recording in human history occurred in 1877. Thomas Edison, the irascible genius who also invented the incandescent light-bulb and a host of other new technologies, recorded himself onto sheets of tinfoil. The vibrations in the air from his voice caused a diaphragm to move, activating a stylus which cut into the foil. Then the process was reversed: moving the foil under the stylus brought the diaphragm into motion, causing the air to vibrate. Sound. Thin and faint to be sure, but recognizably the sound of Edison, his words clearly audible.

What words did Edison use on this momentous occasion?

Mary had a little lamb
Her fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
That lamb was sure to go

It is a measure of the impact nursery rhymes have on us that Edison would choose one to record.These are the first songs we learn, hearing them again and again in our formative years.

7068 back coverMost nursery rhymes are ancient, products of centuries of oral tradition. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is younger than most, and has a known author. It was written by Sara Josepha Hale, and first published as a poem in America in 1834. It was about a real Mary who lived in Sterling, Massachusetts, who really did have a pet lamb and really did cause a fuss by taking it to school. The poem was later set to music, and with slight variations the song and the rhyme remain in the nursery canon.

How many thousands of times, I wonder, has “Mary Had a Little Lamb” been recorded since 1877?

This version is the work an unnamed and unknown group of musicians, and released on a label called Mr. Pickwick which specialised in records for children. The label shows that it was pressed in Canada, but no date is given. You would guess at the late 1960s or early 1970s.

This song will continue to be recorded, you would think, as long as humans exist and speak English, or some distant derivative of English. Perhaps even the language doesn’t matter: the song could continue even if the words cease to mean anything. Imagine a crèche on a habitable exoplanet in 2342 AD. Children, who have never seen a sheep or snow, sit in a circle and sing along to a recording … The technology used is unimaginable, and the sound quality will be a whole lot better, but the connection will remain.

  • Artist: Unknown
  • EP Title: Mary Had a Little Lamb
  • Track: Side 1 Track 1 “Mary Had a Little Lamb”
  • Format: 7” 45 rpm
  • Label: Mr. Pickwick MP-13
  • Manufactured in: Canada
  • Year: Unknown

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