Even though I am without children and never have worked as a daycare provider, lately I’ve been giving thought to nursery rhymes, mainly, what do they mean? What is their purpose? Is there anything beyond the poppycock?
Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon
Jumping cows? Cats playing fiddles? How does that work? I understand dogs are up for a good time, but dishes and utensils are never going to run away from home. You’ll never see a tea cup on a milk carton. A steak knife may look tough, but it takes great comfort being nested in a butcher’s block.
Although some nursery rhymes may be pure nonsense, some try to throw in a little learning.
Hickory Dickory Dock
The mouse ran up the clock
The clock struck one
The mouse set its Citizens Watch
Hickory Dickory Dock
This is where it all starts. With a few meters of rhyme, a child will not only learn to count all the way up to one, he or she will also learn even the lowliest of creatures should take care to show a sense of style. From there a child can begin to build on these fundamental blocks.
Itsy Bitsy Spider went up the water spout
Down came the rain and washed the spider out
Out came the sun and dried up all the rain
But the Itsy Bitsy Spider went home
To throw all eight socks into the dryer
One plus eight, before you know it a child knows enough to dial 911. It goes by so quickly as little ones learn to not only grasp complicated math equations but also commerce.
Baa Baa Black Sheep have you any wool?
Yes sir! Yes sir! Three bags full
One for my master
One for the dame
One for the little boy who lives in the lane
Back in the days of feudal England, before Bitcoins and deferred stock, currency usually came in the form of the domesticated animals. And if you were a shepherd, you knew more than a few hands were going to reach into those bags of wool. And who was attached to those hands?
Master = Lord
Dame = Church
Little Boy = Serf (Owner of the sheep)
You think taxes are high now? Try being taxed at 66%. And not only did most of this serf’s profits go to the church and king, his own sheep was talking to a complete stranger about the remaining profit. Does the term “Black Sheep” come from this nursery rhyme? Is this sheep wheeling and dealing with every intention of leaving the Little Boy holding an empty bag?
It’s a cruel world when sheep turn on you. It doesn’t get any better when pigs join in on the embezzlement.
This little piggy went to market
This little piggy stayed home
This little piggy had roast beef
This little piggy had none
And this little piggy went wee wee wee all the way home
It appears the first piggy was sold to a butcher, but why does the second piggy get to stay home? Is the Little Boy so despondent after losing all his wool that he lets the rest of the livestock do whatever it wants? So not only does the third piggy stay home, it raids the icebox, leaving no roast beef for the fourth. And the fifth piggy may actually be the first once it realizes what’s really going on at the market.
After a long day of learning about tax rates and the commodities market, most little ones are ready for bed. And the best way to get them ready is to sing a lullaby.
Hush little baby don’t say a word
Mama’s going to buy you a mockingbird
What we know of these first two lines is they are in direct contradiction with each other. In the first sentence the mother is telling her little one to be quiet. In the second she’s thinking of buying a bird that most definitely will not help with the quiet.
And if that mocking bird doesn’t sing
Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring
It looks like the mother is buying an expensive gift and using her little one as the excuse for the purchase.
And if that diamond ring turns to brass
Mama’s going to buy you a looking glass
Guess what little one? That diamond ring isn’t turning into anything but a family heirloom if you can keep quiet that long.
New baby. New ring. What more does this new mother need? Unfortunately, she’s an E-Bay addict and goes on to buy more and more provisions, none of which are disposable diapers and baby formula.
- billy goat
- cart and bull
- dog named Rover
- horse and cart
No college fund or Baby Mozart, just livestock and a need for a two-cart garage. But if an ox pulling a cart is what a little one needs to sleep, who am I to judge? It’s best for young ones to get a good night’s rest for soon they will be up at dawn and working in the fields.
Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep
And doesn’t know where to find them
Leave them alone, and they’ll come home
Wagging their tails behind them
I don’t know who is more irresponsible: Little Bo-Peep who can’t execute her core responsibility as a shepherd or the narrator who says it’s no big deal. How does the narrator even know everything’s going to be all right? Does he or she think sheep are like golden retrievers? Can this type of work ethic be found in other English professions?
DS Bob pursues the mob
But none will let him catch them
Don’t fret this mess, you’re not paid less
Plus, the mob sometimes pays taxes
(Nowhere near 66%)
Little Bo-Peep may have been incompetent but at least she wasn’t a goldbricker like:
Little Boy Blue come blow your horn
The sheep’s in the meadow
The cow’s in the corn
But where is the boy who looks after the sheep
Under the haystack fast asleep
The English don’t appear adept at herding sheep. Are there other professions where they are better suited?
Wee Willie Winkie runs through town
Up stairs and down in his nightgown
Tapping at windows, crying at the lock
Are the children in their bed
For it’s past ten o’clock
Is it really a good idea for some guy to run around in his underwear looking into children’s bedroom windows? Maybe he should avoid the nighttime raids, put on some pants and help Bo-Peep in the meadow. Boy Blue is a lost cause. He’s definitely no Jack.
Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jump over the candlestick
Believe it or not jumping over a candlestick was once considered an agility test in England. If a person could clear a lit candle without extinguishing the flame, this was considered as a sign of skill. It was also a sign of fertility if the person also didn’t burn his royal jewels. So, if successfully hopping over a lit flame guaranteed you a wife and a job, were there other simple tasks used to separate the wheat from the chaff?
Jack be nimble
Jack be spry
Jack know when not to lie
Jack be nimble
Jack be true
Come into work unless with flu
Jack be nimble
Jack show élan
Which door leads to the john?
It might be best to pass over these nursery rhymes when teaching a solid work ethic. Fortunately, there are others to help.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
The mulberry bush
The mulberry bush
Here we go round the mulberry bush
On a cold and frosty morning
What a great way to start of the day! But the chores do not end there.
- This is the way we wash our hands
- This is the way we wash our face
- This is the way we brush our teeth
- This is the way we clean our clothes
Why so much cleaning? Well, I imagine this is what’s needed when you start the day by walking around a berry-staining tree. But why a mulberry?
Well, during the 1700’s when wool was hard to come by due to the incompetence of Bo-Beep and Boy Blue, mulberry plantations were planted across London in order to create a domestic silk-weaving industry. One problem: the silkworms did not fare too well in the inclement British weather. So, why did people still feel compelled to walk around these half-frozen trees?
It is believed the nursery rhyme comes from the female prison, HMP Wakefield, where the prisoners got their morning exercise by walking around a rather large mulberry tree in the middle of the courtyard.
That’s right! To “Go around the mulberry bush” was to do time. So, in hindsight this nursery rhyme might not be the best way to teach a child good habits. Are there any others that do not involve felons?
Three men in the tub
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker
And all of them out to sea
At least this nursery rhyme has some respectable professions. But why are the men adrift at sea? Are they being deported? Are they making an escape? And why are they using a tub as a source of transportation? Well to answer these questions, we need to go back to the original rhyme.
Three maids in a tub
And who do you think was there
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker
And all of them gone to the fair
That’s right! These upstanding members of the community were caught going to a peep show to see former female prisoners wash themselves of mulberry stains. Now this rhyme makes sense, but how do you pass this version along to children? No, it’s best to revamp the rhyme and send these tradesmen out to sea in a leaky vessel. It’s always best to update to the situation. Maybe we can revise this rhyme to reflect a more modern spin of corporate malfeasance.
Three men in a tub
And who do you think they be?
The arms dealer, the Swiss banker, and the NY stock trader
Washing their dirty money clean
There are some nursery rhymes that need a few rinses to wash out the original intent. Then there are those that retain their words for their true meaning is hidden in the rhyme.
Mary Mary Quite Contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids in a row
So, this nursery rhyme is about Mary, but which one? The Virgin Mary? Mary Magdalene? The Mary who had the little lamb? After some research, the Mary that makes the most sense is Queen Mary I, daughter of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Her reign was brief (three years), but she made enough of an impact to earn the nickname, “Bloody Mary.”
There are over 2,000 years of English history and what you need to know is that most of it is a frightful mess. Before the British turned the royals into living museum pieces, most of the families acted like street gangs. Conflicts were not settled with lofty oratory and thoughtful debate. Scores were settled with assassinations and endless battles. It was a nasty affair and nobody swung the royal scepter harder than Queen Mary I.
Even though her father King Henry VIII split from the Pope in Rome, Mary held a stronger allegiance to her mother, Catherine, who was a Catholic from Spain. And once Mary ascended to the throne, she took steps to return England to its Catholic tradition. How? Well, by killing a lot of people. So let’s revisit this nursery rhyme through heretical-colored glasses.
Mary Mary Quite Contrary: Mary’s attempt to turn England back to Catholicism
How does your garden grow: It doesn’t for it’s a graveyard filled with dead Protestants
With silver bells and cockleshells: These were torture instruments attached to thumbs and the private johnsons to coerce confessions and repentance
And pretty maids in a row: Guillotines were called Maidens and Mary had a penchant for mass executions
Mary had such an impact on English history you can find her in another nursery rhyme.
Three blind mice. Three blind mice
See how they run. See how they run
They all ran after the farmer’s wife
Who cut their tails with a carving knife
Did you ever see such a sight in your life
As three blind mice
In this nursery rhyme Mary I makes an appearance as “The farmer’s wife”, but who are the three blind mice?
Some believe the mice to be unrepentant Protestant nobles. Others believe the mice were not only commoners but also blind commoners who purchased English-translated bibles and had them read to them, which was a complete no-no. To be Catholic during this time was to have everything written in Latin and the reading of those words handled by the church. To read the bible on your own was asking for too much independence. As Chris Roberts in “Heavy Word Lightly Thrown” writes, “Both Spain and the Catholic Church were regarded with deep suspicion and while armed rebellions were quickly extinguished, many Protestants refused to abandon their faith. So Mary decided to burn it out of them.” (aka cut off their tails)
It didn’t take much for a person to be executed or thrown into prison during this time. Complaints were handled by making sure there were no more complaints. So how did regular English Bob begrudge his circumstance: By obscuring core facts in rhyme.
There once was an old woman who lived in a shoe
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do
She gave them broth with no bread
Then whipped them soundly and put them to bed
Who is the old woman? Why is she living in a shoe? Is the shoe up to code? Legend has it that the “old woman” is another royal, but this time it’s King George II. It was rumored that he was not a dominating presence on the thrown and his wife Queen Caroline ran the show. It didn’t help that George started the fashion of wearing powdered wigs, which is the easiest cosmetic approach to take if you want to look like your grandmother.
So, if King George II is the Old Woman, why is he living in a shoe? Well, if you turn the British Isle 90 degrees clockwise, you could say it looks like a ratty shoe. Also George II was living in a time when the crown was ceding more and more power to Parliament.
Children = Members of Parliament
Bed = House of Commons
Whip = The person in charge of keeping members in line
During this time it probably wasn’t good to be king if you are wearing a wig, your wife is wearing your pants and nobody in Parliament will listen to you. Being called an Old Woman is as bad enough. Is it worse than Humpty Dumpty?
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again
A Humpty Dumpty by definition is a short and clumsy person. In literature Humpty Dumpty started appearing as an egg. Soon an insult became an allegory about the fragility of life. To be on the wall was to be indecisive. To make a decision was to have a disastrous fall. Maybe this egg-theme rhyme on a predestined fate should have read:
Humpty Dumpty young and raw
Humpty Dumpty believed no divine law
All of the philosophers and all of the church
Couldn’t convince this egg life wasn’t a turd
If Humpty Dumpty was a broken egg, why would the king’s men care? How could horses help? He may have been an egg in early literature, but the Humpty Dumpty in this nursery rhyme is actually a weapon.
In 1648 Parliament and the King were at it again, but this time it was a full-blown civil war. And like any great street fight between rival gangs, they had cool nicknames.
Parliamentarians = Rounders
Royalist = Cavaliers
Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon that sat on the fortified walls of the town of Colchester. Even though the town was a stronghold for the Parliamentarians it was at the moment being held by the Royalists.
The Rounders wanted their town back so they laid siege and brought enough fire power to weaken the fortified wall, causing the cannon to fall and break into such disrepair that neither the Cavaliers nor their horses could get the cannon back on the wall again.
A great civil war battle condensed into a simple children’s rhyme. If that’s the case, what’s up with Jack and Jill?
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after
The true nature of this rhyme is unclear. First, it could be about two Humpty Dumpties who simply couldn’t walk up a hill. Some believe Jack and Jill to be King Louis XIII and Queen Marie Antoinette who most definitely broke their crowns when they were beheaded during the French Revolution. Others believe the rhyme is in reference to King Charles I and his attempt to reform taxes on liquid measurements. (Back then a half-pint was called a Jack and a quarter-pint was called a Jill and Charles’ attempt at reform was roundly rejected by Parliament.) Then there are those who believe the rhyme is an ode to lost innocence for “to fetch a pail of water” is a euphemism for sex and to “lose your crown” is to leave your virginity back on the hill. In all honesty can’t anything have sexual connotations if the recipient is horny enough?
Jack and Jill went to HR Hill
To jointly file taxes (Sex party with an auditor)
Jack forgot and didn’t deduct (No protection)
So Jill got no spa and waxes (Pregnant with twins)
So what have we learned so far? What is the sum of all these nursery parts? What word could we pick to best describe most if not all of these rhymes? How about failure?
- Lost sheep
- Wet socks
- Damaged cannons
- Rejected reforms
- Unruly pigs
- Persecuted faith
- Lost tails
- Broken crowns
Say what you want about the British. They are not shy about listing their fiascos. Here is one in the heart of their greatest city.
London Bridges falling down,
Falling down, falling down
London Bridges falling down,
My fair lady
Why did this most iconic of bridges keep collapsing into the Thames? It appears the British are as good at building bridges as they are herding sheep.
Build it up with wood and clay (50-1176)
Wood and clay will wash away
Build it up with bricks and mortar (1176-1832)
Bricks and mortar will not stay
Build it with iron and steel (1832-1968)
Iron and steel will bend and bow
Build it up with silver and gold
(Are you out of your mind?)
This is one of the first nursery rhymes I remember not only singing but playing as two kids would pantomime the rickety drawbridge by raising their skinny arms into the air and clasping their hands while the rest of us passed under. But soon the nursery rhyme would end, the bridge would lower and some unfortunate participant would be caught in the linked arms.
Off to jail you must go!
You must go!
You must go!
Kind of a harsh sentence for loitering, but who said London was a fair place to live. Never is that more evident than in this nursery rhyme.
Orange and Lemons, say the bells of St. Clements
You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St. Martins
When will you pay me, say the bells of Old Bailey?
When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch
When will that be, say the bells of Stepney
I’m sure I don’t know, says the great bell of Bow
How bad was it in 1665 London when even the churches were going around begging for food and demanding money? This nursery rhyme is unfamiliar to me, but like London Bridges it also pantomimes a drawbridge for the participants. But instead of being hauled off to jail, the child in the clasped arms is in for a grimmer fate.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head
Chip chop chip chop the last man’s dead.
The churches in this rhyme are real and some were on the three mile route from Newgate Prison to the public execution held at Tyburn square. So this nursery rhyme is nothing more than a death march. For whom the bell owes? For many in London that was their constant fate: always in the rears, always looking for the next hustle.
Half pound of tuppeny rice
Half a pound of treacle
That’s the way the money goes
Pop! Goes the weasel
Here is another nursery rhyme I remember from my youth, but I never knew the lines except for the last one. Instead, I sat on the floor with a Jack-in-the-Box in my lap, cranking the handle, mumbling the short tune until POP out jumped a joker or monkey but never a weasel.
As I cranked and waited, it never occurred to me that the true nature of this nursery rhyme is about the corrosive nature of endless debt. But in order for most commoners to afford rice and treacle (syrup), they sometimes had to pop (pawn) their Sunday best weasel (suit coat). Hopefully, they would have enough money by Saturday to buy their outfit back. They just had to avoid the next stanza.
Up and down the city road
In and out of the Eagle
That’s where the money goes
The Eagle was an actual pub and going in and out of it was a sure-fire way to not save any money. But it was in the Eagle or any English pub where most of these nursery rhymes were first born, first as thoughts, then little ditties mulled over between pints of ale, the muttering sometimes became spewing, then Pop! A couplet finds a friend. So dark. So dire. So randy. These rhymes were probably the brightest part of the day for those sitting on a stool with half a pint and no coat, not wanting to go home, laying low in a dimly lit pub for to be out in the streets in the middle of the day would involve running into a church asking, “Where’s my money?”
It was the Victorians who were responsible for turning these barroom songs and cheers into nursery rhymes. Mother Goose was invited into the children’s bedroom but Wee Willie Winkie needed to stay outside. Persecution and prostitution were scrubbed clean, so blind mice, lost sheep and imported trees could help teach. Even Mary needed to be spit spot and English proper and not a homicidal maniac. But make no mistake, the genesis of most of these rhymes was infused with alcohol and steeped in misery, which brings me to the reason why I started this essay. It didn’t start with any of the nursery rhyme but an Irish ballad.
Down in the Willow Garden
Where me and my love did meet
As we sat there a courtin’
My love fell off to sleep
The first time I heard his song was as a lullaby, sung by Holly Hunter to the recently kidnapped Nathan Junior in Raising Arizona. Later it was Art Garfunkel’s rendition.
I’ll admit it. I liked this song. I liked the song so much I decided to commit the lyrics to memory so I could sing the ballad on my own. And as I began singing, I kept asking, “What are these words coming out of my mouth?”
I had a bottle of burgundy wine
My love she did not know
And so I poisoned that dear little girl
On the banks below
How does a sweet lullaby turn into murder? Was the death accidental?
I drew a saber through her
It was a bloody knife
I threw her in the river
Which was a dreadful sight
No, the singer most definitely wanted his true love dead. But why?
My father often told me
That money would set me free
If I would murder that dear little girl
Whose name is Rose Connelly
I mentioned earlier that most nursery rhymes took their first steps in an English pub. I also believe that most hare-brain schemes are hatched by those who had one too many Jack and Jills. It’s as if the whole plot of this ballad was discussed between a father and son in the dark recesses of the pub with the father no longer in control of any rational thought and the son not quite knowing enough to understand that it’s all blarney.
Pa: Another round of Guinness Seamus.
Son: Pa, don’t you think you’ve had enough?
Pa: Speak for yourself. You’re the one who’s going to need a wee bit of courage tomorrow.
Son: About that, can we go over the plan again?’
Pa: The plan is you do that thing and we are rich.
Son: You said that, but how do we become rich?
Pa: Don’t worry about any of that.
Son: I’m not worried. I just want to know the particulars.
Pa: The particulars?
Son: Is this some murder for hire? A third-party life insurance policy? Is there a double indemnity clause?
Pa: So, you don’t trust the old man, is that it?
Son: I didn’t –
Pa: You think you know more than me? Want to go out on your own? Maybe take Miss Fanny Britches with you?
Son: You know I wouldn’t do so Pa. It’s… I think… Just maybe we’ve been spending too much time on these stools thinking how nice it would be to make some money that we haven’t really thought everything through.
Pa: There’s nothing to think though. You’re either man enough to do this thing or you’re not. Oh, my boy, we are going to be rich. I wish you could see it?
Son: I wish I could too. (Get’s up)
Pa: Where are you going, lad?
Son: To talk a stroll and clear my head.
Pa: Grand idea! Be sure to say hi to McGillis. I’m into him for two months’ wages. And what about Halloran? Do you have his money?
Pa: Maybe you could pawn your coat? Oh, you did that already, didn’t you?
Son: (Sits back down) I really liked that coat.
Pa: Well, there’s one way to get it back.
Well, the son goes through with the murder and like any plan propped between two pints of ale, it fails spectacularly.
My father sits at his cabin door
Wiping his tear-dimmed eyes
For his only son soon shall walk
To yonder scaffold high
Yet another public execution, which makes this ballad a perfect candidate for a nursery rhyme. Just a rub-a-dub-dub and turn that son into an animal, maybe a pig. But this time it doesn’t go wee wee wee all the way home.