Sing a Song of Sixpence

Okay, it may be a stupid question, but it’s beginning to irritate me, so I put it to you folks. I was tooling along in a research project and I came across a paper that stated that the nursery song Sing a Song of Sixpence was actually a coded message used by pirates looking for new recruits. I have looked but have found nothing to confirm or deny this. Any one have any references or insights on this?

Wish I could take credit for the hyperlink, the good BorrisB clued me into this site when I asked " do executioners get that second chance".


Adam “Inky” Greene

Way off topic but I just learned that the band “Sixpence None the Richer” was named after a story in a C.S. Lewis book. Lewis described man’s relationship to God, specifically his (man’s) ability to give a gift to God, like a little boy asking his father for sixpence so the boy could buy his dad a gift. Did the father really think he was sixpence the richer afterward?

I did a web search on the band’s name (I was looking for lyrics) and they turned up under Christian bands. I didn’t know that, but when I asked my daughter she said it was common knowledge. One of the websites had the story of the band’s name. The website said the book was “Mere Christianity” but I couldn’t find the story in my copy, so maybe they got it wrong. I hope they got the rest of it right! I’d hate to be fostering a new UL!

“Finally, consider Kottke’s voice which sounds like geese farts on a muggy day.”
Leo Kottke
6- And 12-String Guitar

Sing a song etc is a piece of doggerel from the time of the plague in London.

It refers to the time[3 days] between diagnosis and death------One two three and we all fall down.

The coins on the eyes of the dead–sixpence.

The herbal attempts at cures–pockets full of rye.

There are other references which I cannot recall for not remembering the whole rhyme.

AS far as I can recall that’s the origin of the ‘nursery rhyme’-------some nursery rhyme-who could sleep after that?

Oops! You quoted one of the “lost” legends from snopes. In other words - this link has false information.

Ezstrete, just to clear it up for you, the original version (1744) from The Pretty Songs of Tommy Thumb is as follows:

Sing a Song of Sixpence
A Pocket full of Rye
Four and Twenty Naughty Boys
Bak’d in a Pie.

When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Was not that a dainty dish
To set before a king?

Inky, that’s an interesting hyperlink to Snopes, but please note that little comment at the bottom: “Ahoy, Matey, the truth’s been scuttled.”

I was dubious even before I saw that, since the lead-in to the Snopes article comments that “Ring Around the Roses” is a reference to the Great Plague – a common urban legend that has well been debunked (Actually, “Ring Around the Roses” first appeared in print as late as 1881, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.)

The Baring-Goulds, in The Annotated Mother Goose make no such reference to piracy or Blackbeard.

The line “Sing a Song of Sixpence”: The Snopes joke says that was good wages in Blackbeard’s day. Maybe. But according to the Baring-Goulds, the line appears in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Come on, there is sixpence for you; lets have a song … And in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Bonduca (1614): Whoa, here’s a stir now! Sing a song of sixpence!

The “pocket full of rye” (initially a “bag full of rye”) was once a specific measurement in recipes.

The four and twenty is one of the most common numbers in Mother Goose rhymes, as a double-dozen; and the number 12 is rich in associations, traditions, and superstitions.

The “four and twenty naughty boys” later became “four and twenty blackbirds”. There are lots of theories about the rhyme – the blackbirds are the 24 hours in a day, the king is the sun, the queen is the moon, for instance. Katherine Elwes Thomas identified the king as Henry VIII, the queen as Katherine, and the maid as Anne Boleyn.

An Italian cookbook of 1549, translated into English in 1598, actually contains a recipe “to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up.” This dish is mentioned in 1723 by John Nott, cook to the Duke oF Botton, as a practice of former days, the idea being the birds fly out of the pie and create a diversion. Man, they knew to have fun in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Snopes doesn’t usually screw up, but this seems extremely far-fetched, and the writer hurts his credibility by claiming “Ring Around the Rosie” has something to do with the plague.

It’s also preposterous to think they’d go to so much effort when a simple “Blackbeard’s sailing” would do. And pirate did actively recruit sailors simply by looking for likely men in harborfront bars.

Note that the only quote given on the page – “It was a favourite trick in the sixteenth century to conceal all sorts of surprises in a pie.” – hasn’t the slightest relevance in proving the assertion.

As noted from the last line, the Snopes article is a humourous fake.

I’m so proud… my baby has gotten some recognition.

I can share a little “history” on this. David (snopes) was looking to add some more pages to his Lost Legends, and he posted a request to a message board normally only frequented by regulars of snopes. He suggested we come up with something similar to the Ring Around the Rosie legend. I did a search on nursery rhymes and this one caught my eye for some reason. I threw this thing together in about 10-15 minutes, and posted it back to the board. David took it and “polished” it a bit, and there it is as you see it.

I was starting to think nobody would believe such a thing since I had never seen anyone asking about it (the Mr. Ed and KFC get some questions).

Hope you enjoyed it, but yes, it is pure fiction (I’m listed the author of one of the “sources”).

for Ckdexthavn

Since yesterday I’ve resurrected an old annotated copy of"Mother Goose" and it is also supposed to refer to a day.
The 24 blackbirds being the hours,and the pie opening being the morning and all of it being the a jolly present for the KIng[who is the sun].

Hey-they didn’t have telly then so they used their imagination!

Thank you one and all. With this group no legend is safe, hoorah!

Ezstrete posted:

I doubt this explanation. What does the next verse mean with the king in the counting room counting all his money and the queen in the parlor eating bread and honey and the blackbirds nipping off the maid’s nose? The hours allegory falls flat.


Eztrete – sorry to be so long in responding, but didn’t I say earlier that there were LOTS OF theories about the poem, and that ONE of them was the 24-hours in a day?

Twelve and multiples of twelve are very common in folklore.