Trials and Tribulations of the Itsy Bitsy Spider

“The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout…”

From very early in Bob Dylan’s career his song lyrics have been analyzed, interpreted, studied and debated, especially those containing opaque and even surreal imagery. Whether it be a song with obscure lyrics such as Changing of the Guard, or a song as seemingly straightforward as All Along the Watchtower, plenty of ink has been spilled to explain them. (In the internet age this would be digital ink, natch.) What happens when we carry this same habit of sleuthing into the nursery rhymes of our childhood?

It’s fairly well-known that many of the nursery rhymes we learned as toddlers had a background story of one kind or another. By means of Google we can quickly find many of these stories, as well as some entertaining interpretations that were probably absent in the beginning. Here is one of them, an explanation for the meaning of the Itsy Bitsy Spider, an especially cute nursery rhyme when accompanied by the children’s hand gestures emulating the itsy bitsy spider and the rain washing him down out of the water spout.

Lets start with the characters.

The Spider — represents the proletariat (middle class) and his ongoing struggle against the bourgeoisie(upper class)
The Waterspout — represents the myth of equality and the American Dream. The spider continues to doggedly scale the waterspouts heights, only to be denied the fruits of his hard work
The Rain — represents the bourgeoisie, impeding the progress of the spider, and standing between him and his ultimate goal of true freedom and equality.
The Sun — represents the easing of difficult living and working conditions. It provides false hope for the spider, prolonging his struggle.

The words itsy bitsy could refer to powerlessness. Which means the poem should go like this:

The powerless middle class folk tries to achieve his dreams
But the upper class stands in his way,
yet the sun comes out and gives the middle class folk false hope
and he tries to achieve his dreams again.

(See for this Marxist interpretation of the nursery rhyme.) This somewhat comical interpretation of the song/poem can be found in a number of other places online, such as this blog An Arkies Musings.

Another interpretation of the song can be found at the Spoven Wheedle blog. In this version, the itsy bitsy spider is an alcoholic. The “spout” is the bottle. The poor lush gets washed out, but then gets dry for a spell when the sun comes out. Unfortunately he goes right back to the bottle.

It’s a very short story, and most definitely it’s a cycle. The little spider goes into the spout, climbs up, gets washed down and then makes another go of it. Over and over again, the wheel of life. One blogger ends his rant on the nursery rhyme in this manner:

How does this speak to you as a person on your own impossible and possibly meaningless quest that we call life? When the storms of life smack you around and toss you around like a rag doll and spit you out in a bedraggled mess and you are somehow blessed enough to recover how do you respond?

Are you the itsy bitsy spider, charging back up the spout, challenging the source of your pain again with no guarantee of reward or are you going to shake yourself off and say, “I risked it once. No more.”?

In researching all this I learned that the nursery rhyme has two iterations. In some versions it was the “Incy Wincy” Spider as opposed to the Itsy Bitsy Spider.

One blogger states that there is no real meaning to the song other to help improve finger dexterity in little lads and lassies. This certainly may be true, just as certain Dylan songs may have no deeper meaning beyond what is stated on the surface. Whatever it means, it sure is cute when children wide-eyed and innocent recite and re-enact it.

Smile and enjoy your day. The sun will come out tomorrow.

Originally published at

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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