Macabre Mother Goose: The Dark Side of Children's Songs
As if we need experts to tell us nursery rhymes are downright creepy, folklorists Iona and Peter Opie confirm it in their Oxford English Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. They call the tunes, most of which made their way into print by the eighteenth century, "fragments of ballads or of folk songs, remnants of ancient custom and ritual and may hold the last echoes of long-forgotten evil." The rhymes were never actually meant for children; many were political statements, couched in enough nonsense to protect the singer from being prosecuted for treason, and set to a fun melody that was easy to remember and pass along. If children overheard, there was no real concern. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries kids were not treated like kids, but more like "adults in miniature," according to the Opies.
"Ring 'o Roses"/"Ring Around the Rosie"
But as the rhymes were published for children in popular tomes like Mother Goose and Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, some adults began to fear that happy songs about murder and fatal illnesses might have a negative effect on the playground crowd.
As early as the nineteenth century, authors like Samuel Taylor and Sarah Trimmer tried to alter nursery rhymes to make them more suitable to young ears, worried the macabre nature of some songs might inspire sadistic tendencies and create a race of children akin to The Omen. But these authors didn't anticipate the internet, or public libraries for that matter.
These are some of the lyrics from nursery rhymes and other children's songs you may have forgotten, you may have never heard, or may have haunted you for years...
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down.
Familiarly known as "Ring Around the Rosie" this nursery rhyme conjures images of laughing children dancing in a circle among scattered flower petals, not people collapsing into death after suffering a plague. But there it is. People (like us) who can't leave well enough alone have long been linking the lyrics to this otherwise sweet rhyme to symptoms of England's Great Plague or the earlier Black Death.
In 1665, the bubonic plague struck London hard, killing 20 percent of the population within a year. "Ring o' Roses" is said to indicate a rosy rash that spread across the victims' bodies, while "a pocket full of posies" was used to ward off the smell of disease. Obviously, the "ashes, ashes" that come falling down are the remnants of cremated dead bodies. Other versions replace "ashes, ashes" with sneezing ("A-tishoo! A-tishoo!), another symptom of the plague.
While it sounds like a horrifying prospect, many folklorists dismiss the idea. After all, the song was published in Kate Greenaway's 1881 edition of Mother Goose
over two hundred years after the plague's reign of terror (and even longer since the Black Death of the 1300s). Also, the so-called rosy rash was only present in extreme cases of the illness. Even Snopes calls the idea preposterous
. But you can't unthink it now, can you?
Nothing says sweet dreams like the image of a baby tumbling out of a treetop to his death among the shattered remnants of his cradle, yet the soothing lullaby has become so ingrained in our consciousness we rarely question the shocking nature of the lyrics to "Rock-a-bye Baby," originally titled "Hush-a-bye Baby."
On the tree top,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will fall baby
Cradle and all.
But are things really as they seem? Unfortunately, all of the theories are just that — theories. One claims that pilgrims were inspired by the Native American practice of letting their babies be gently rocked to sleep while their cradles rested on tree branches. Another points to an English family who lived in a gigantic yew tree. Then, there was also the political turmoil that surrounded the overthrow of King James II in 1688.
But an even stranger answer lies in an ominous warning alongside the first publication of the nursery rhyme in Mother Goose's Melody
(1765): "This may serve as a Warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they may generally fall at last."
That poor baby's a goner.
"Who Killed Cock Robin?"
"Who Killed Cock Robin?" details the murder of the title character and the preparation of his funeral by his friends in the animal kingdom. The original version was printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book
(1744) and only contained the first four verses:
Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.
Thirty years later, an extended version was published to satisfy the warped little minds of children who craved the grisly details of poor Cock Robin's demise—and they were grisly:
Who saw him die?
I, said the Fly,
with my little eye,
I saw him die.
Who caught his blood?
I, said the Fish
with my little dish,
I caught his blood.
The victim was well-mourned by his friends who carefully prepared his burial; the beetle made a shroud, the owl dug a grave, the thrush sang a psalm and so on. As for the murderous Sparrow, despite his confession, he was free to kill again until a later addition condemned him to death by hanging.
While the cruel Cock Sparrow
The cause of their grief
Was hung on a gibbet
Next day, like a thief
Still another century later, H.L. Stephens had to up the ante from disturbing to terrifying. In his Death and Burial of Poor Cock Robin
(1865), he illustrates the tale with a cast of characters dressed in Victorian fashions. The creepy part is they have animal heads and human bodies. The result is like some twisted collaboration between Stephen King and Charles Dickens. Our murderer has the face of a sparrow and the upper body of Rocky II
era Stallone. A dapper fly with massive wings accompanies a portly spider whose legs stretch up to his web dotted with the corpses of insects. The murder victim is the only one who actually looks like an animal—Cock Robin is the last image shown...on his back with a gaping beak and an arrow through his heart.
"It's Raining, It's Pouring"
Long before they could channel their boredom into violent video games, children of the mid-twentieth century used to amuse themselves on rainy days by imagining the deaths of the elderly and putting their fantasy to a jaunty tune.
It's raining, it's pouring,
The old man's snoring.
He got into bed
And bumped his head
And couldn't get up in the morning.
He couldn't get up because he was dead, not extra tired from bumping his head in the night. Dead.
"Oranges and Lemons"
The eighteenth century nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons" starts out pleasantly enough as church bells are ringing around London.
Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement's.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin's.
But like many of these other rhymes prove, you're lulled into a false sense of security until things take a nasty turn at the end.
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!
Folklorists Peter and Iona Opie pointed out that in the days of public executions, the condemned were led along the street to the accompaniment of the tolling of bells.
Far from traumatized, children gleefully reveled in the last verses and even made a game of it. They threatened to capture whoever ran beneath their arched arms as they shouted "chip chop chip chop!" What followed wasn't an execution, but a game of tug of war between the "oranges" and "lemons." ("London Bridge is Falling Down" has a similar game sans the tug of war ending.)
"Goosey Goosey Gander"
If nursery rhymes sought to teach any morals, respecting elders wasn't one of them. Just like the poor old man who fatally bumped his head on a rainy day, the one who refuses to say his prayers has a similar fate in "Goosey Goosey Gander."
Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn't say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stairs.
Some earlier versions of the rhyme actually command the listener to "take him by the left leg and throw him down the stairs" rather than simply recount the story. Thankfully, the earliest recording from 1784 makes no mention of the cruel punishment but instead offers a gift of a "cup of sack and a race of ginger."
"There was an Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe"
Apparently none of these naughty children who go around murdering the elderly live with the "Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe" (first published in Infant Institutes, 1797). At first glance, this rhyme seems to depict a poverty-stricken woman trying to provide food and discipline for her children.
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
A politically-correct version might have her doling out time-outs instead of whippings, but we get the point. According to another version from James Orchard Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes of England, things take a creepy turn after the lights go out:
When she came back
They were a'lying dead
She went to the wright
To get them a coffin
When she came back
They were a'lying laughing
She gaed up the stair
To ring the bell
The bell-rope broke
And down she fell
"Three Blind Mice"
"Three Blind Mice" is one of the primary examples of a nursery rhyme that wasn't intended for the nursery at all. It made its debut in Thomas Ravenscroft's Deuteromelia or The Seconde part of Musicks Melodie
in 1609 in a different form:
Three blind mice, three blind mice
Dame Iulian, Dame Iulian
The Miller and his Merry Olde Wife
Shee scrapte her tripe lick thou the knife
James Orchard Halliwell introduced the tune to children in 1842 with Nursery Rhymes of England
, and made it more kid-friendly. Or not. Instead of a miller's wife, we have a farmer's wife—who should be used to seeing mice, living on a farm and all—wielding a carving knife. Not only have the poor mice lost their sight, but they're about to lose their tails, too.
Nursery rhymes have long been prejudiced against mice, though. An even more disturbing scenario was described in "Three Mice Went into a Hole to Spin." Little rodent tailors have to contend with a cat trying to smooth talk her way into their home. It used to end with the mice singing a wise refusal "oh no, Miss Pussy, you'd bite off our heads!", but a chilling alternate ending was included in Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes
Says Puss: "You look so wondrous wise, I like your whiskers
and bright black eyes; your house is the nicest house I see
I think there is room for you and me."
The mice were so pleased and they opened the door
And pussy soon laid them all dead on the floor.
"Sing a Song of Sixpence"
In what appears to be a centuries-old prequel to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds
, a royal maid gets her nose pecked off by a blackbird after his brothers are baked into a pie for the king in "Sing a Song of Sixpence." Even though they emerge from the pastry unscathed—and tweet a happy tune, in fact—their protector is still determined to take his wrath out on someone from the royal household.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.
It seems unfair that the maid and not the baker is his target, but she's given some relief in later versions as a skilled doctor sews her nose back on.
In the earliest known version of the rhyme, however, it's not birds that are baked into the pies, but "four and twenty naughty boys" ala Hansel and Gretel. So while the image of a woman getting her nose ripped off by a vicious blackbird may inspire a lifetime of Ornithophobia, it's a less terrifying fate than ending up in the king's stomach (or outhouse).
Speaking of birds, little kids unfamiliar with the French language may sing along with the lyrics to this tune in ignorant bliss until they realize it's about slowly tearing the feathers off of their chirping friends. The "Three Blind Mice" have nothing on the torture this poor bird endured.
Little skylark, lovely little skylark
Little lark, I'll pluck your feathers off
The lengthy process is as followed (with enthusiastic repetitions in between):
I'll pluck the feathers off your head. I'll pluck the feathers off your head.
I'll pluck the feathers off your beak. I'll pluck the feathers off your beak.
I'll pluck the feathers off your eyes. I'll pluck the feathers off your eyes.
I'll pluck the feathers off your neck. I'll pluck the feathers off your neck.
I'll pluck the feathers off your wings. I'll pluck the feathers off your wings.
I'll pluck the feathers off your feet. I'll pluck the feathers off your feet.
I'll pluck the feathers off your tail. I'll pluck the feathers off your tail.
I'll pluck the feathers off your back. I'll pluck the feathers off your back.
Off your back!
Off your tail!
Off your feet!
Off your wings!
Off your neck!
Off your eyes!
Off your beak!
Off your head!
Be really afraid of the kids who do understand French and keep on singing.
Mother Goose again proves that yesterday's crime can become today's nursery rhyme. While modern children's songs teach kids how to count and learn their ABCs, children of bygone eras had different needs...like how to efficiently hide a dead body. "Eeper Weeper" offers the bonus of using your existing career skills to do it.
Eeper Weeper, chimney sweeper,
Had a wife but couldn't keep her.
Had another, didn't love her,
Up the chimney he did shove her.
An earlier version from Scotland includes the delightful detail of mice feasting on the woman's corpse. "Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater" found a similar solution when he stashed his cheating wife's body in a pumpkin shell "and there he kept her very well."
"Oh My Darling, Clementine"
In "Oh My Darling, Clementine," the narrator recalls his lost love—a big-footed miner's daughter who gets a splinter in her toe and stumbles into a river. Because he couldn't swim, he stood nearby and watched her drown. The song is meant to be light-hearted, but it still paints a vivid picture of Clementine's demise:
Ruby lips above the water,
Blowing bubbles, soft and fine,
But, alas, I was no swimmer,
So I lost my Clementine.
Percy Montrose is credited with the earliest version of the classic folk ballad, which debuted in 1884, but the song was actually inspired by H.S. Thompson's earlier song "Down by the River Liv'd a Maiden." The 1863 ode to Clementine describes her womanly features like "her lips were like two luscious beefsteaks, dipp'd in tomato sauce and brine." In this version, her lover plies her with wine before she takes her fatal dip into the water. In the 1960s, Bobby Darin added insult to injury when he ended his cover with a fat joke:
Hey you sailor
Way out in your whaler
A-with your harpoon and your trusty line
If she shows now, yell...
A-there she blows now!
It just may be chunky Clementine
"London Bridge is Falling Down"
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
"London Bridge is Falling Down" references the famous stone bridge that was commissioned by Henry II in the late-1100s. It's a simple song that lists different materials to try to keep the bridge from collapsing (earlier versions claim London Bridge is broken down, rather than falling down). Folklorists have tried in vain to link the famous "my fair lady" to historic women like Anne Boleyn, Matilda of Scotland and Eleanor of Provence. But for horror purposes, we're not concerned with the lady of the song; we're concerned with the man. The watchman to be exact.
Set a man to watch all night,
Watch all night, watch all night,
Set a man to watch all night,
My fair lady.
The watchman seems to be appointed to make sure thieves don't make away with the precious building materials like silver and gold, but there's also a more sinister explanation for his role, according to the Opies. Legend has it, living people were built into the foundations of walls and gates "to serve as guardian spirits." In the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes
, they cite tales of other famous bridges, like Aryte in Greece, which is said to have kept from falling down after the wife of the master-mason was walled in and the bridge of Rosporden in Brittany that was failing until a four-year-old boy was sacrificed. Indeed, children's bodies have been found embedded into the foundations of bridges like the Bridge Gate at Bremen.
As far as we know, however, no humans were harmed in the making of London Bridge.
~Amanda Flinner, February 28, 2013