by Roger Franke
Retired high-school German teacher, rural LaGrange County, IN
The winter of 2013-2014, now somewhat of a distant memory, provided me with more than ample opportunity to take on several household projects that had been on the back burner far too long. It started with the culling out and reorganization of an LP record collection, moved on to a huge jumble of compact cassettes, and followed up with a foray into a highly disorganized and huge heap of CDs -- with a snow-blocked driveway and roadway, all the while, preventing any escape to more enjoyable pursuits away from home.
In my first attack on the CD collection, I came across an almost forgotten title “The Kingston Trio -- Collector’s Series.” Hmm, I thought to myself, might as well make a tedious job at least tolerable by listening while sorting.
The lead-in song was “Scarlet Ribbons for Her Hair.” Yep, I remembered that one. The second track launched into the ballad that made the Trio famous, “Tom Dooley,” which not only topped the pop music charts in 1958, but also credited the group with starting the so-called folk music boom in America.
As the selections continued to play, sorting again captured my attention, that is, until the “needle” hit track 18. It was almost at the end of the song when my brain finally registered a question. Was that a German phrase I just heard in the refrain? I replayed it, this time paying more attention to the lyrics. Sure enough, they were singing something like “Alle Alle Oxen free,” a mixture of German and English which translates as “All All Oxen free.” -- But why?
My thoughts took me back to my boyhood school days at Flatrock, a rural German-Lutheran elementary school in Madison Township, Allen County, Indiana. To be sure, German was no longer at that time in the latter 1940s and early 1950s the main language of communication. Several pupils sometimes spoke in Plattdeutsch with each other, particularly when they wanted the details of conversation to remain private -- a talent, by the way, that I envied. But for the most part English was the language of the day.
At recess time, we pupils often played a game called hide-and-go-seek. The game involved the use of a catchphrase that went, as best as I can recall, either “Alle alle in free” or “Alle alle all free,” which was yelled by a player who was successful in reaching the home base ahead of the “it” player, thus setting any captured participants (or those still hiding) free again. It didn’t occur to me at the time, (nor to any of the other players, I suspect) that the phrase had any connection to the German language. It was just a game term (and one that I felt, until recently, was likely destined for obscurity, if not extinction.)
I checked on the CD case insert for the spelling of the song title, and it read “Ally Ally Oxen Free,” the same words as in the refrain. With a little research, I found out that the song first appeared in 1963 in the Trio album “Time To Think.” The song was written by Rod McKuen and Sammy Yates as a protest against air pollution (specifically by aluminum oxide). But -- protesting against air pollution is a far cry from a catchphrase in a children’s game. What’s the connection?
A Wikipedia article under the heading “Olly Olly Oxen Free,” provided a little more background. The article started with an explanation of the use of the catchphrase and its variants in children’s games. Then it went on to state, “the phrase was reinvented [by the Kingston Trio] for the song ‘Ally Ally Oxen Free’.” With a bit of creative imagination, I suppose, its appropriateness to the new context can be established.
In the next section, entitled “In Popular Culture,” the author goes on to detail numerous uses of the phrase or its variants in other songs (28 titles mentioned), in movies, on television, in computer games and in other areas. For the sake of brevity, only one specific example out of a long list will have to suffice: “Seinfeld,” Season 7, Episode 8, “The Pool Guy,” when Newman runs toward the pool to jump in, he yells “Ollie, ollie oxen free” -- and lands immediately afterwards on the pool boy.
As to the origin of the phrase and its anglicized variations, I can only say, based on admittedly somewhat haphazard research, that it appears to be German, with the author George David Winius stating the case for the majority. In his book “The Brats of Briarcliff -- A World of Boys before TV and Video Games,” he states in a footnote on page 100, “This [Ollie, ollie oxen free] sounds Germanic to me and must hearken back to something much older which we did not comprehend. It must originally have been “Alle, alle Ochsen frei” or something like that.” One source, however, supports the notion, and rather vigorously, that the the phrase originates in old England, while another claims it goes back to Scandinavia . . .
. . . . .
. . . The words, accompanied by guitar, flow melodically from the speakers:
Time to let the rain fall -- without the help of man
Time to let the trees grow tall -- now if they only can . . .
. . . Ally ally ally ally ally oxen free . . .
But I take little notice, my mind preoccupied again with the process of sorting.
P.S. -- In response to my query, Ruth Reichmann, editor of the “Indiana German Heritage Society Newsletter, replied with some additional information about the use of the catchphrase discussed above. One of the variants of the German version of the game includes the phrase “Alle alle sind auch frei,” (All all are also free) which, she states, was corrupted over time by children of non-ethnic German-Americans, becoming eventually “Ollie, ollie oxen free.” Thus the word “oxen” replaced the word “auch” in anglicized versions.