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The Story Behind the Song "Three Little Fishies"

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

Three Little Fishies Without Their Mama Fishie

Three Little Fishies Without Their Mama Fishie

"Three Little Fishies": A Beloved Children's Song

"'Swim' said the mama fishie, 'Swim if you can'
And they swam and they swam all over the dam"

Did your Mother sing this song to you when you were young? Mine sure did, and I would sing right along as best I could. I remember her telling me years later about how I thought the words were “Free Little Fishes” and “Fwaming over the dam.” If you listen to some of the early recordings of this song, it is no wonder I was confused.

This delightful children's song tells the story of three little fishies who disobey their Mother and swim over a dam and out to sea. There they encounter a shark, which they refer to as a whale. Luckily, the story ends happily when they return to the pool in the meadow and are reunited with Mama.

Here is the story behind the song.

The Origin of the Fish Song

The lyrics for the song were written by Josephine Carringer and Bernice Idins and the music was by Saxie Dowell. Or so they Wikipedia story goes. The real story is that Dowell, a sax player in Hal Kemp’s orchestra, "borrowed” the song from three University of Tennessee sorority sisters, Carringer, Idins and Mary Elizabeth Bomar. He had met the three while visiting and performing in Knoxville in February 1939, where they sang their "Fish Song" for him. In March of that year, Kemp and the orchestra recorded “Three Little Fishies” on the Victor label with a trio of singers called The Smoothies.

The University friends, of course, heard the song and had a lawyer contact Dowell on their behalf. Dowell didn’t contest their claim that he had taken their song–he sent them a check to buy the rights. The trio never received any royalties from the song. Josephine teamed up with a new writing partner and had some minor success with another song called "I Want a Hat With Cherries" written for bandleader Larry Clinton.

And The Smoothies? Also known as Babs and Her Brothers, they recorded a number of tunes with Kemp's orchestra in 1939 and 1940, including "Love For Sale", "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)" and "Say Si SI." There were actually a number of "Babs", but the one who was with The Smoothies when they worked with Hal Kemp was Arlene Johnson. The trio, who had formed in Chicago in 1930, got their name from a radio commercial they did for "America's Smoothest Cigarette."

The Hal Kemp Orchestra featuring The Smoothies

Kay Kyser, The Ol’ Professor of Swing

Kay Kyser and his orchestra also recorded the song in 1939. They had a multi-million seller, with their version on the Brunswick label spending nine weeks in the number one spot on the Billboard charts.

Kay, whose real name was James, toured the Midwest with his band, playing in restaurants and clubs in and around the Chicago area in the 1930s. They had originally landed a contract with the Brunswick label in 1935 and had also previously recorded on Victor. The band became regulars in Chicago’s Blackhawk restaurant–a venue in the Loop in Chicago’s downtown area famed for bringing in Big Band entertainers–thanks to a recommendation from band leader Hal Kemp. One of the band’s most popular offerings was something called the “Kollege of Musical Knowledge”, sort of a game show that tested people’s knowledge of music. This was how Kyser became known as The Ol’ Professor of Swing.

Kyser and his orchestra also appeared in movies for RKO studios, including “That’s Right-You’re Wrong” with Lucille Ball. Kyser is also known for being the first big performer to entertain the troops at the beginning of WWII, beating Bob Hope for this honor by a couple of months.

Kay Kyser's Version of "Three Little Fishies (Itty Bitty Poo)"

The Glenn Miller Orchestra

"Three Little Fishies" was immensely popular in 1939, and every big band out there was recording it, including The Glenn Miller Orchestra. The band was originally formed in 1935, folded for a bit and re-formed in 1938. Though they had performed on the radio previously, things never took off for them until they got their big break in March 1939, playing a stint at a Long Island casino that was broadcast across the country…and the rest is history. In April of that year, they recorded “Moonlight Serenade” which became their signature song and was one of the biggest hits of the Big Band era.

Their recording of "Three Little Fishies (Itty Bitty Poo)" came out on the Bluebird label and featured Marion Hutton (whose real name was Marion Thornburg) and “Tex” Beneke having fun with the lyrics by inserting some “baby talk.” Marion was discovered by Glenn Miller when she was only 17 and too young to sing in clubs. To get around this problem, Miller and his wife became her legal chaperones, which allowed this underage young lady access to nightclubs so she could sing with the orchestra. Marion’s sister Betty was an actress who appeared in a number of feature films in the 40s and 50s, including “Let’s Dance” with Fred Astaire and “The Greatest Show on Earth” with Charlton Heston.

Miller himself ended up enlisting in WWII in 1942. Captain Miller and his band performed hundreds of engagements to entertain the troops, both in the U.S. and in England. On December 15th, 1944 he boarded a plane in England for a short flight to France to perform for American troops that had helped to liberate Paris. His plane went down in the English Channel. The wreckage was never found, and Miller's military status remains Missing in Action.

A photo of The Glenn Miller Orchestra taken between 1940 and 1941.

A photo of The Glenn Miller Orchestra taken between 1940 and 1941.

Glenn Miller's Version of the Song

Additional Recordings From 1939

No wonder this song has endured the way it has. There were fully eight different recordings made of "Three Little Fishies" in 1939 alone. In addition to the versions noted above, the song was also recorded by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, Dick Jurgens and His Orchestra, The Mills Brothers, Mildred Bailey with Red Norvo and His Orchestra and The Ramblers Dance Orchestra.

Too bad the trio who originally wrote the song didn't retain the rights. Imagine the royalties they would have received!

The Andrews Sisters

LaVerne, Patty and Maxine's heyday as The Andrews Sisters was during WWII, when they became known as "Sweethearts of the Armed Forces Radio Service" for all of the time they volunteered for radio and other performances to entertain the troops.

The trio got their start in the 30s and had their first hit in 1937 with "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" on the Decca label. Personal problems and fighting between the sisters caused the act to fold for a time, but they made a comeback in the early 60s, touring extensively and recording covers of songs previously recorded by other artists, including "I Left My Heart in San Francisco", "Puff The Magic Dragon" and "Three Little Fishies."

The Andrews Sisters Singing "Three Little Fishies"

More Fish Songs

In addition to the cover recorded by The Andrews Sisters, there were numerous other recordings made in the 50s and 60s by a variety of artists, including Spike Jones, Homer & Jethro and Ray Walston.

Remember Maria Muldaur? "Three Little Fishies" appeared on her 1998 album "Swingin' in the Rain." Other songs on the album included "A Bushel and a Peck" and "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah."

The Muppets even got in on the fish act. "Three Little Fishies" was featured in episode 417 of The Muppet Show, first aired in the U.S. on February 21, 1980. In this version, an eel is the featured singer.

The Muppet Show

© 2017 Kaili Bisson


Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 21, 2020:

Wow Richard, I will have to look for that. I don't recall ever hearing it before.

Richard on April 20, 2020:

The Three Stooges also did a version. That is where I first heard it as a kid.

Stormyblueeyez2 on November 18, 2019:

Hi Kaili, thank you for the information. I will follow up. I am curious for artistic purposes. I appreciate you writing back so quickly. You rock! =)

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on November 18, 2019:

Hello Sandra,

So glad you enjoyed this. From the reading I did, several sources confirmed that Dowell bought the rights to the song. I would assume his estate still owns the rights, but it is possible they were sold at some point.

Stormyblueeyez2 on November 17, 2019:

Hi Kaili,

Loved the article and hoping you have more information. Clarifies some questions I had. Though, I have one more.

I was wondering if you knew who owned the copyright to this song?

Thank you! =) ~ Sandra

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on February 15, 2017:

Hello Ms are most welcome!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 15, 2017:

It is so easy to read and sing lyrics without thinking of its origin. Thanks for bringing these facts to light.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on February 14, 2017:

Hello Flourish,

My Mom used to sing it to me and I just loved it. I hope your nephews enjoy it too!

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 13, 2017:

I've never heard of the song so this was interesting to learn about. I have young nephews who may enjoy the song.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on February 11, 2017:

Hello Venkat and thank you. I too like the Hal Kemp version the most.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on February 10, 2017:

Very nice presentation of the song. The first version of it appealed most to me.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on February 10, 2017:

Hi Alicia,

You are most welcome! I hadn't thought of it in a very long time either, until I caught the earworm last week and had to do something about getting it out of my brain.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 10, 2017:

I haven't heard or thought about this song for many years. Thanks for the enjoyable memories, Kaili.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on February 10, 2017:

Hello lambservant...I'm so glad you enjoyed this! It got stuck in my head one day last week and I knew I had to write something about it. I would never have imagined there were so many different recordings.

Lori Colbo from United States on February 10, 2017:

This was delightful. I'm like Bill, I was drawn by the title. You did a great job here.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on February 10, 2017:

Hi Bill and you are most welcome. I had fun listening to all the different versions of the song.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2017:

I saw the title of this article and just had to read up on the song...thanks for some great trivia!