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A History of Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies
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  1. Sing a Song of Sixpence
  2. The Cat and the Fiddle
  3. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
  4. Hickory, Dickory, Dock
  5. Pussycat, Pussycat
  6. Three Wise Men of Gotham

If you want to know more about old jingles and rhymes,
have a look in a good book -
one by the Opies and one by Linda Alchin.
Now comes a little more.


Doctor Foster went to Glo'ster [Glochester]
In a shower of rain;
He stepped in a puddle, up to his middle,
And never went there again.

Roads could be bad in earlier times. Puddles could be deep here and there, much deeper than suspected. What about nursery rhymes? Are some of them deeper than suspected? Many think so and have written books about it. Two such books are in the book list at the bottom of the page.

Rhymes and rhymed jingles are fine things. They can assist fanciful creations of child imagination, and easily assist in accessing heritage parts. Yet it depends on which rhymes and jingles a child is nurtured with, for a tradition can be cruel, and traditional nursery rhymes tend to reflect sides to the traditions they are outgrowths of.

Many nursery rhymes are quite complete in themselves, telling some story tersely and perhaps rudimentary, but that is OK with children. Also, some nursery rhymes are nonsensical. Andrew Lang holds in The Nursery Rhyme Book that nonsense is "a very good thing in its way" (1897, 19). What nonsense will bring and do, would depend on the kind of nonsense, however. There is fit nonsense and unfit nonsense, for example. What may be fit would depend on the circumstances, the receivers and so on.

Lang, further:

To read the old Nursery Rhymes brings back queer lost memories of a man's own childhood. (1897, 7)

We do not know what poets wrote the old Nursery Rhymes, but . . . some of them were written down, or even printed, three hundred years ago. Grandmothers have sung them to their grandchildren, and they again to theirs, for many centuries. In Scotland an old fellow will take a child on his knee for a ride, and sing. (1897, 8)

In spite of what the poet says . . . it does not do to believe all the history in song-books. (1897, 13)

[Many] rhymes . . . are sung in games and dances by children, and are very pretty to see and hear. They are very old, too, and in an old book of travels in England by a Danish gentleman, he gives one which he heard sung by children when Charles II. was king. They still sing it in the North of Scotland. (1897, 17-18)

The memory traces of snatches sung in the nursery last long. Later in life they can bring back with them myriads of slumbering feelings and half-forgotten images.

One generation is linked to another by the everlasting spirit of song; and ballads of the nursery may still be brought from memory's recesses to amuse our children or our grandchildren.

The collection of jingles we know and love as the "Melodies of Mother Goose" is drawn from many sources. They are, taken altogether, a rather merry union of rhyme, wit, pathos, satire and sentiment. Many of them contain reflection, wit and melody. Some of the older verses are offshoots from ancient folk lore songs, and have descended to us through the centuries.


A man of words and not of deeds,
Is like a garden full of weeds. (Lang 1897)

The figure of Mother Goose is an invented author of a collection of nursery rhymes. They are often published as Old Mother Goose's Rhymes.

Both France and England claim Mother Goose for their own:

About the year 1650 there appeared in London a small book named "Rhymes of the Nursery; or Lulla-Byes for Children". In it were many of the pieces that have been handed down to us; but the name of Mother Goose was not then used. In that edition were the rhymes of "Little Jack Horner," "Old King Cole," "Mistress Mary," "Sing a Song of Sixpence," and "Little Boy Blue."

In 1697 Charles Perrault published in France a book of children's tales entitled "Contes de ma Mere Oye," and this is the first time we find authentic record of the use of the name of Mother Goose. Perrault's tales comprised "The Sleeping Beauty," "The Fairy," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Blue Beard," "Puss in Boots" "Riquet with the Tuft," "Cinderella," and "Little Thumb"; eight stories in all. On the cover of the book was depicted an old lady holding in her hand a distaff and surrounded by a group of children listening eagerly. The Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang later edited a beautiful English edition of this work (Lang 1897).

John Newbery was once believed to have published a compilation of English nursery rhymes entitled Mother Goose's Melody, or, Sonnets for the cradle, some time in the 1760s, but the first edition was probably published in 1780 or 1781 by his stepson, Thomas Carnan, who was one of Newbery's successors. This edition was registered with the Stationers' Company, London in 1780. But no copy has been traced. The earliest surviving edition is dated 1784. The first authentic American edition was a reprint of Carnan's edition, made by Isaiah Thomas of Worcester in Massachusetts, in 1785. (WP, "Mother Goose"?

None earlier editions contained all the rhymes so well known at the present day, for every decade has added its quota to the mass of jingles attributed to "Mother Goose." It is to be hoped that the gems (but which are they?) of the collection will live and thrive for many more ages.

The Opies bring knowledge of the tradition

In The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1997), Iona and Peter Opie include over 500 rhymes, songs, nonsense jingles and lullabies, and show that rhymes have been tied to a variety of historical events or folklorish symbols. The Opies also present reproductions of early art found in ballad sheets and music books over the last two centuries.

The Opies note the earliest known publications of rhymes, describing how they originated, illustrating changes in wording over time, and indicating variations and parallels in other languages. They also discuss the different types of rhyme and the earliest published collections. Treasured by parents and children, their book is also a reference source for scholars for its literary and bibliographic information.

Linda Alchin offers a trimmed-down history of nursery rhymes

Needles and pins, needles and pins,
When a man marries his trouble begins.

The proverb could be taken to mean that some recurrent problems in life are long-standing and speak to folks about the typical human condition . . . Linda Alchin makes efforts to ferret out "the secret history of nursery rhymes" in a book by that name (2013). From the marketing information:

Many of the history and origins of the humble nursery rhyme are believed to be associated with actual events in history, with references to murder and persecution, betrayal, greed and to tyrants and royalty. Rhymes are usually short and therefore easy to remember.

The blurb also says:

Reciting old Nursery Rhymes to our children is one of the most pleasurable first steps to developing their language skills and extending their vocabulary. The words were remembered but their secret histories were forgotten . . . seemingly innocent, nursery rhymes . . . were used as safe vehicles to parody unpopular political, royal and historical events of the day . . . Although some of the most popular Nursery Rhymes are rooted in English history they are told to children throughout the English-speaking world.


"It helps to be informed," one might say, assumptions aside.

With jingles and rhymes tastes differ. We may allow for that. Even so, children pick up phrases and delight in rhymes. Besides, it could help to learn that the humour or entertainments of folks tends to get less savage with the centuries, as Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg (1997) illustrate in A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day (1997). We can hope that they are right.

If wishes were horses,
Beggars would ride;
If turnips were watches,
I would wear one by my side (Lang 1987).


Sing a Song of Sixpence

"Sing a Song of Sixpence" is a well-known English nursery rhyme. It is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index as number 13191. Here we might say: "Didn't know that!"

The rhyme's origins are uncertain. The first verse appeared in print in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, published in London around 1744, in the form:

Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
Baked in a Pye.

The next printed version that survives, from around 1780, has two verses and the boys have been replaced by birds. A version of the modern four verses from 1784, ends with a magpie attacking an unfortunate maid. Verses with happier endings were added from the middle of the 19th century. A common modern version is:

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Wasn't that a dainty dish,
To set before the king.

The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

One of the following additional verses is often added to moderate the ending:

They sent for the king's doctor,
who sewed it on again;
He sewed it on so neatly,
the seam was never seen.


There was such a commotion,
that little Jenny wren
Flew down into the garden,
and put it back again.

(Source: WP, "Sing a Song of Sixpence")

From the history of it

It is known that a 16th-century amusement was to place live birds in a pie, as a form of elaborate dish. An Italian cookbook from 1549 (translated into English in 1598) contained such a recipe: "to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up" and this was referred to in a cook book of 1725 by John Nott.

The wedding of Marie de' Medici and Henry IV of France in 1600 contains some interesting parallels. "The first surprise, though, came shortly before the starter – when the guests sat down, unfolded their napkins and saw songbirds fly out. The highlight of the meal was sherbets of milk and honey, which were created by Buontalenti."

Linda Alchin says in The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes (2011) that blackbirds and other song birds were eaten as a delicacy especially during the Tudor period. The references to the counting house and eating honey were [parts of] the common man's perception of what a King and Queen spent their time doing. The nursery rhyme, when sung to a child, always ends with the tweaking of a child's nose!


The Cat and the Fiddle

Hey Diddle Diddle

Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon!
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran off with the spoon!

The English nursery rhyme "The Cat and the Fiddle" is also known as "Hey Diddle Diddle" (and "Hi Diddle Diddle", and "The Cow Jumped Over the Moon"). It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 19478.

The rhyme is the source of the English expression "over the moon", meaning "delighted, thrilled, extremely happy".

The name "Cat and the Fiddle" was a common name for inns, including one known to have been at Old Chaunge, London by 1587.

The earliest recorded version of the poem resembling the modern form was printed around 1765 in London in Mother Goose's Melody.

The rhyme may date back to at least the sixteenth century. Some references suggest it dates back in some form a thousand or more years, and base the half-guess on the fact that a cat playing a fiddle was a popular image in early medieval illuminated manuscripts.

The melody commonly associated with the rhyme was first recorded by the composer and nursery rhyme collector James William Elliott in his National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs (1870).

(WP, ""Hey Diddle Diddle")


Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

"Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" is an English nursery rhyme. The Roud Folk Song Index classifies the lyrics and their variations as number 4439. The earliest surviving version of it dates from 1731. The words have not changed very much in two-and-a-half centuries.

The rhyme is sung to a variant of the 1761 French melody Ah! vous dirai-je, maman. The music was first published in the early nineteenth century. The tune is widely accepted as a common-practice nursery rhyme.

The rhyme was first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, the oldest surviving collection of English language nursery rhymes, published c. 1744.

The rhyme has often been resorted to in literature and popular culture.

The wool industry was critical to England's economy from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, and wool is celebrated in the rhyme at a time when good wool in Europe was produced in England but the cloth workers from Flanders, Bruges and Lille were better skilled in the complex finishing trades such as dying, cleansing, shrinking, and thickening the cloth.

In 2006 the words to this old rhyme were changed, by some English nurseries, to Baa Baa, Rainbow Sheep, for there were Big Brother concerns (of officials) that "black sheep" might be offensive - so 'black' was replaced with 'rainbow'. The measure sparked considerable public debate.

(WP, "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep"; Alchin 2011)


Hickory, Dickory, Dock

Hickory, Dickory, Dock

Hickory, dickory, dock!
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory, dickory, dock!

"Hickory Dickory Dock" or "Hickety Dickety Dock" is a popular English nursery rhyme. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 6489.

Other variants include "down the mouse ran" or "down the mouse run" or "and down he ran" or "and down he run" in place of "the mouse ran down".

The earliest recorded version of the rhyme is in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, published in London in about 1744, which uses the opening line: 'Hickere, Dickere Dock'. The next recorded version in Mother Goose's Melody (c. 1765), uses 'Dickery, Dickery Dock'.

Westmorland shepherds in the nineteenth century used the numbers Hevera for 8, Devera for 9, and Dick for 10.

The rhyme is thought to have been based on the astronomical clock at Exeter Cathedral. The clock has a small hole in the door below the face so the resident cat could better hunt mice.

(WP, "Hickory, Dickory, Dock")


Pussycat, Pussycat

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I've been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat, pussycat, what did you [do] there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.

"Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat" is a popular English language nursery rhyme. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 15094.

The melody commonly associated with the rhyme was first noted by the composer and nursery rhyme collector James William Elliott in his National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs (1870). For the original version, there is no 'do' in 'what did you there'.

The earliest record of the rhyme was published in Songs for the Nursery, printed in London in 1805. The Queen most often depicted in illustrations is Elizabeth I.

(WP, "Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat"; Alchin 2011)


Three Wise Men of Gotham

Three Wise Men of Gotham

Three Wise Men of Gotham
Went to sea in a bowl.
If the bowl had been stronger
My tale had been longer.

The Wise Men of Gotham appear in a popular nursery rhyme with a Roud Folk Song Index number of 19695. The rhyme is an adaptation of a tale called Three Sailors of Gotham.

The rhyme was first recorded in Mother Goose's Melody published around 1765.

Stories of the Wise Men of Gotham

Mother Goose in prose, Frank Baum, Literature  

Alchin, Linda. 2011. The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords Edition.

Bremmer, Jan and Herman Roodenburg, eds. 1997. A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Oxford: Polity Press.

Lang, Andrew, ed. 1897. The Nursery Rhyme Book. London: Frederick Warne and Co.

Lear, Edward. 1904. Nonsense Books. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Co.

Opie, Iona and Peter. 1997. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press. ⍽▢⍽ Recommended.

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