Nursery rhymes and folk songs with interesting origins

Well, it appears that “Sing a Song of Sixpence” was not actually a recruiting rhyme used by pirates; that was a little hoax perpetrated by Snopes to remind us not to place too much reliance on any “authoritative” source, not even Snopes. See this thread:

Nevertheless – some nursery rhymes and folk songs do have interesting histories:

“Little Jack Horner” is about an attempt by the last Abbot of Glastonbury to evade Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and hold on to some of the abbey lands.

“London Bridge Is Falling Down” might refer to the bridge’s burning during a Danish invasion in 1013, or it might be about the failure of Queen Eleanor, wife of Henry III, to properly fund the bridge’s upkeep.

“Hark! Hark! The Dogs Do Bark!” might be about the accession of William of Orange (the “beggar” “in a velvet gown”) to the British throne, or it might be much more ancient, and refer to the role of medieval beggars in spreading seditious ideas through the countryside.

" Big Rock Candy Mountain" was used by hoboes to lure boys to run away with them (and become their slave-concubines).

What others do you know?

There’s some question on its veracity, but Ring Around the Rosey may or may not be a happy little ditty about the bubonic plague.

I’ve been told that “Ring around the Rosie” is about the black death:

“ring around the rosie” = black pock marks on the cheeks of plague victims
“pocket full of posie” = pus that erupts from thoses sores
“ashes, ashes” = anything connected to plague victims was burned
“we all fall down” = and die.
Then there’s “Jack & Jill”, which is supposedly a cautionary tale about letting your kids play unsupervised:

“Jack & Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water” = they left the house alone
“Jack fell down and broke his crown” = Jack fell into the well and fractured his skull (the ‘crown’ of the head)
“And Jill came tumbling after” = Jill fell into the well too.

Let’s take that one off the table right now–

I’d prefer to take Iona Opie’s (The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes) opinion on this one. She tends to discount this theory.
The writer of the Wikipedia article says

First the author states a supposed fact. Then continues to support it by quoting traditions(legends). Which is it?

Yup. My wikipedia page linked to the Snopes refutation. Hence my “may or may not.”

I think it’s a very convincing post-hoc argument, no matter how false it actually is.

Every now and again, someone publishes a book claiming THE DEFINITIVE origin for these rhymes. Mostly, they fail to take all the evidence into account. Most rhymes exist in a variety of forms at different places and in different times.

For the rosies / plague thing, compare:

Ring a ring a rosie
A bottle full of posie
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie

attested from 1790.

For whatever reason, we like our children’s rhymes to be ancient repositories of deeply significant historic or mythical lore. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not (these are the same kids that sing about McDonald’s, Barney, and eating greasy grimy gopher guts). But a good rule of thumb is that if someone is only giving you one version of a given rhyme, they’re not a reliable source.

Iona & Peter Opie are the best and most accessible source for the varieties, either their Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes or The Singing Game (1985).

Regarding “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” the Pakistani folktale “Toontoony Pie” has a comparable story: it involves black birds being baked into a pie, a king, and the loss of someone’s nose. It is much harder to explain with English pirates!

The Jack Horner thing, on the other hand, may well be true. The rhyme is attested about a century before the legend, but there’s no counter-evidence.

Not well known in Anglo-Saxon traditions, here is the curious tale of the “Mambrú se fue a la guerra” Spanish nursery song. Not well known in England because it was made to celebrate the death of a British guy:

John Churchill (1650-1722), the duke of Marlborough, was the bane of the French, At the Duke’s command, the British defeated the French army several times, in the battle of Malplaquet (1709) the French surrender again ( :slight_smile: :stuck_out_tongue: ) , but they thought erroneously that the general from Marlborough had died in battle, so they made the song. The song was not used much after that, but then one of the nursemaids of the French court used the song to make the prince fall sleep, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette loved the song. Thanks to the Bourbon influence (The family influence, not the alcohol), the song became popular in Spain, and because of the Spanish conquest of Latin America, it became a traditional nursery rime even there.

If you scroll down, you can click and hear the music in QuickTime format, I’m tempted on correcting Wikepedia because it claims erroneously that:


It just doesn’t sound the same.

Here is the French version: **Dr. Drake ** will be glad to know that there are several versions of this :slight_smile: :

*Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre,
mironton, mironton, mirontaine,
Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre,
on n’ sait quand il reviendra.
Il reviendra-z-à Pâques,
mironton, mironton, mirontaine,

Il reviendra-z-à Pâques,
ou à la Trinité.
La Trinité se passe,
mironton, mironton, mirontaine,
la Trinité se passe,
Malbrough ne revient pas.*

I just came across a wonderful about about the histories of nursery rhymes! Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, by Chris Roberts.