It's a lucky babe who is sung to sleep with a nursery rhyme, soothing and rhythmic, just like a mother's heartbeat. And the rhymes date back centuries.
Still, "for all their popularity, most of us don't know what the heck we're singing about," noted Emily Frost in Babble. "There was an old lady who lived in a shoe? What!? To make matters worse, we're singing them with children who are at the height of their inquisitive and persistent phase, as in, 'Why? Why? But why?'"
Every now and then, it's refreshing to join the little ones in a good bit of curiosity.
Before chanting another rhyme about animals who may or may not have any wool or pockets that are full of posies, let's review some lyrics and their origins. Just what do those weird old nursery rhymes mean?
First off, there are the purely bizarre. Kids don't have to grow up and read Alice In Wonderland for outright strange sequences. Not when there's Hey Diddle, Diddle, a nursery rhyme that can be traced back to 1500s England and may be a reference to the scandal between Queen Elizabeth I and her "lap dog," Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester, according to ABC Kids, Inc.
Sure, the diversity of the dish running away with the spoon is admirable, but "The cat and the fiddle / The cow jumped over the moon / The little dog laughed to see such fun," is pretty odd.
Runner-up in this category, definitely is the Three Men in a Tub. There is the obvious question of whether anyone could ever make a solid living as a candlestick maker. And the whole scene of "Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub. And who do you think were there? The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and all jumped out of a rotten potater" conjures up the kind of dream you'd have after too many late-night chili dogs.
It's kind of surprising that Stephen King hasn't based a suspense story on a similar scenario: “Them”, instead of “It”.
Even weirder: the actual story behind the lyrics, according to Albert Jack in Babble. It dates back to the 15th century and first referred to "maids" in a tub, not men, and most likely alluded to a traveling peep show.
When the nursery rhymes aren't outright acid-trippy, they can still be oddly violent, especially against the background of slumbering babies and their parents sing-song voices. Um, really, "All the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty together again" after his great fall? And while illustrators have long considered Humpty an egg, that's not apparent in the verbal version. Shattering is so uncool!
The historical background does put a positive spin on the death and destruction that modern-day parents can appreciate: "Written in the same vein as “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” (a song mocking the Nazis that raised the British spirits during the darker days of World War II), “Humpty Dumpty” was a piece of propaganda that passed from town to town as the news of [Charles I's] defeat spread across England and the Parliamentarian troops slowly returned home, teaching even their youngest children to recite the tale of their victory," Jack said.
And that stinking Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe? Had so many children, she didn't know what to do? Surely we're not advocating her approach of giving them all broth without any bread, whipping them all soundly and putting them to bed?
But the reassuring note about the Old Woman nursery rhyme is that it probably related to a good thing: According to ABC Kids, Inc., two famous figures may have been the old woman in the rhyme. One is Queen Caroline, wife to King George II, who had eight children. The other is Elizabeth Vergoose of Boston, who had a total of 16 children, six of her own and 10 adopted. A queen who could produce lots of kids for her monarch (the old "heir and a spare") was a good thing, even if whipping was not.
Rock-a-bye-baby is another that's melodious, and has soothed tykes to sleep by the billions. Probably better not to dwell too long on the lyrics involving, "When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, And down will come baby, cradle and all."
It's just no good to have a baby falling out of a tree, whether or not the chant was written by an American immigrant or back in England, as speculated.
Another disheartening, gray tale that is widely accepted and rarely analyzed: "Old Mother Hubbard." The first few lines from this 1800s rhyme, possibly based on a comic book, are probably all most of us know well:
Old Mother Hubbard/Went to the cupboard/To give the poor dog a bone/When she came there/The cupboard was bare/And so the poor dog had none.
While that's not a sweet message for our tots, the second verse is a real hair raiser:
She went to the baker's/To buy him some bread/When she came back/The dog was dead!
To which we reply, "Yikes."
If you think about it, this might be good training. Today, toddlers can subconsciously absorb lyrics to nursery rhymes like Frere Jaques, and only many years later ponder such questions as, "Would morning bells that are ringing really go 'ding, dang, dong?'" This reasoning process will prepare them not to be alarmed when they start listening to rock and pondering lyrics to, say, American Pie. Or maybe they'll do like they do now: enjoy the bonding and not worry about the words.
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