Like most humans, I was indoctrinated into the cult of nursery rhymes at an early age. Their easy language and catchy hooks get lodged in your brain instantly, but for the most part, these songs lay dormant in some neuron storage facility toward the back of my hippocampus until I had a child of my own. As I dutifully sang these songs with my daughter to uphold one of the many tenets in the parent-child contract, I started to notice that some of these songs are really, really strange -- subversive, even. At the very least, creepy as fuck.
Naturally, being a high-powered investigative journalist, I scoured weird old British texts (courtesy of the Victorian-era British Society for Nursery Rhyme Reform), read through NPR radio transcripts, and combed through weird subreddits in an effort to uncover the hidden meaning behind a few of the most popular nursery rhymes. And from now on, I’m only letting my daughter listen to recordings of whale noises.
"Three Blind Mice"
I’d always assumed this was a straightforward tale of a trio of mice that had the misfortune of blindly walking into a farmer’s kitchen, but shame on me for taking it at face value. It's actually a story about England’s sociopath Queen Mary I, who got the nickname “Bloody Mary” because she burned scores of Protestants at the stake (284 in all; there’s a Wikipedia page that lists each of them, if you’re truly morbid). The three blind mice in this story are supposedly the Oxford Martyrs, three Anglican bishops who refused to renounce their Protestant beliefs, and were executed by Mary for “blindly” following Protestant learnings rather than Catholic ones. Isn’t learning a hoot?!
"Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary"
Because I love fun, here’s another homicidal Queen Mary story. First off, “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” refers to Mary's contrarian decision to reverse her half-brother Edward VI’s Protestant reign and restore Roman Catholicism to England. The second line, “How does your garden grow?” is most often thought to be about Protestant graveyards growing larger after her killing spree. “Silver bells” and “cockle shells” are likely both torture devices. And “pretty maids all in a row” is supposed to be about either offing Lady Jane Grey (a.k.a. the Nine Day Queen put in place by Edward) or, um, miscarriages. Wait, why did I agree to do this story again?
"London Bridge Is Falling Down"
So most historians think that this refers to the Norwegian King Olaf II (a.k.a. the Frozen snowman king) attacking and knocking down the London bridge in 1014, which gave the throne back to Æthelred the Unready, which is my second favorite king name after his successor, Sweyn Forkbeard. Anyway, that part seems relatively mundane and I’m all about Viking tales, but there is another theory that comes from an old belief that a bridge would collapse without a human sacrifice buried within its foundation. So the “man to watch all night” is actually the spirit of the dead human watching over the bridge. But let’s maybe stick to the Olaf version.
In the American version, the story of three tradesmen (the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker) all hanging out in a tub seems like it might be progressive in some ways. That version is warped from the original, which goes, “Hey, rub-a-dub, ho, rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub. And who do you think were there? The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and all of them going to the fair.”
According to an NPR interview with a London librarian, even back in the 14th century, British tabloids loved hearing tales of the well-to-do caught up in scandalous affairs. And so this song we sing with our children, which has spawned many bath toys, actually tells the story of upper-class tradespeople hanging out at a fair and getting caught checking out a bath filled with naked ladies in it. Relatedly, 14th century fairs seem more edgy than I’d imagined.
"This Old Man"
I’ve always been a little bit creeped out by this ditty about an old man playing “nick-nack” on various things owned by the song’s writer. In the end, it turns out this is just a standard case of the English hating on poor Irish people after the potato famine. Most sources I’ve found believe “This Old Man” refers to the influx of Irish beggars going door to door in England after the famine, either to sell knickknacks or to literally play a rhythm called "nick-nacks" using spoons in hopes of getting some change.
The “paddy whack” is a derogatory term for literally hitting an Irish person (just as a “paddy wagon” referred to either the Irish cops driving it or the Irish drunks inside it), and the old man “rolling home” seems to allude to the use of caravans, or the old man using his money from those lucrative knickknack sales to get boozed up. Sigh. The emotional impact this story is having on me is significant.
If you take this song literally, it is about the intelligent idea of putting a baby on top of a tree -- but no one in England ever created children’s songs you could take at face value, so OF COURSE this is actually about how everyone believed King James II had a boy smuggled into the birthing room during his wife’s pregnancy so he could claim a Catholic heir and install an absolute monarchy. The “wind” that knocks the baby’s cradle down (a.k.a. the House of Stuart) is the Protestant wind blowing from the Netherlands, where James' son-in-law William of Orange and Protestant daughter Mary eventually captured the crown during the Glorious Revolution.
So, to answer the obvious question: yes, this song is actually about a fake birth starting a religious war.
"Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush"
According to a book by a former prison governor, this is just your standard children’s song referencing Wakefield Prison, a.k.a. “Monster Mansion,” and the mulberry tree in its exercise yard used by women prisoners.
"Baa Baa Black Sheep"
This isn’t creepy so much as just complaining about King Edward’s wool tax, which gave a third of the cost to the King (“the Master”), a third to the church (“the Dame”), and the rest to the farmer, who could barely cover his expenses (the original version said “but none for the little boy who cries in the lane”). Compared to the others, this is basically the happiest nursery rhyme of all time.
"Ring Around the Rosie"
I’m just… I’m just not doing this one.
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