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Nursery Rhymes

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A woman and child reading a book of nursery rhymes.

There's something quite fascinating about nursery rhymes. On the surface, they're simple little songs with simple little words sung by children still basking in the light of their simple little lives. Yet scratch the surface of any nursery rhyme and you'll reveal a much more complex 'adult' history. These rhymes were often born out of a desire to instruct or teach, or to pass on a moral lesson. They were also a way in which major historical events could be remembered and passed on, like the Great Fire of London in 'London's Burning' or the devastation of the Plague immortalised in the rather creepy 'Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses'.

Indeed, just what is it that makes some nursery rhymes seem rather sinister? Why did the makers of the seminal and utterly spooky British TV series Sapphire and Steel make frequent use of the nursery rhyme? We often think of eerie little music boxes playing spindly nursery rhyme-type tunes in horror films. But why? There's something almost Freudian about the way these invasive melodies can cause the hairs on the back of the neck to rise.

Here are a few nursery rhymes, then. Some of them are humorous, some of them plain daft, and yet others are steeped in folklore and shrouded in mystery.


A pocket full of posies
Atichoo! Atichoo!
We all fall down

'Ring-a-Ring-a Roses' is a fine example of an apparently vacuous and harmless rhyme, sung by happy school kids perhaps ignorant of the song's central macabre topic - namely, the Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague is more commonly known as 'The Black Death' and this horrific disease swept through Europe in the 14th Century, spreading from China, killing 25 million people in just under five years, between 1347 and 1352. Thereafter, the plague was endemic throughout Europe.

The rhyme details the effects of the plague on the sufferer. 'Ring-a-Ring-of-Roses' refers to the first sign of the onset of the disease. Before lesions would develop on the skin of those affected, small rings of red bruise-like marks would appear.

'A pocket full of posies' indirectly points to the fact that people didn't know that it is germs that cause disease, and not smells. It was a commonly-held belief that bad smells - so often associated with the open sewers of London's Thames area - were actually carrying the disease. As a caution therefore, doctors used to carry with them a pouch of sweet smelling flowers thinking it would ward off the infection. 'A pocket full of posies' would also go some way to mask the stench of rotting corpses.

The third line, 'Atichoo!, Atichoo!' is particularly chilling in that the act of sneezing was final physical proof that you had indeed succumbed to the Plague. Sneezing was an audible harbinger of the worst news - that the disease was contracted and that much worse was to come. Flu-like symptoms would appear and become more apparent as the sufferer entered the final stages of the illness, where fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, shakes and bouts of tell-tale sneezing would manifest themselves together before the final breath was drawn.

And of course, 'We all fall down' refers to that great inevitability; the end of life itself.

Alternative Interpretations

Where one may read 'Atichoo! Atichoo! others read 'Ashes! Ashes!' Indeed, some argue that this makes more sense, referring as it might to the act of burning plague-ridden bodies, making sure they were no longer contagious. Others, however, posit the argument that the bodies were never actually burned. Instead, they were collected in carts and dumped en masse in to open graves. Blackheath, a huge open space in South East London, was actually the site of what was once a mass grave during one particular plague epidemic - hence the name Blackheath1, and perhaps also accounts for all those blood-chilling stories of people being buried alive, hands scraping hopelessly at the dirt, leaving behind their suffering ghosts to groan in perpetuity.

Sing a Song of Sixpence

Sing a song of sixpence
A pocket full of rye
Four-and-twenty Blackbirds baked in a pie
And when the pie is ready
The birds begin to sing
Isn't this a dainty dish to set before the King

What sensational sibilance the phrase, 'Sing a Song of Sixpence', is. But more than the way it sounds, it's the hidden history which the rhyme alludes to, with all its little interpretations, that make it such a fascinating piece. Take for instance the notion of, 'Four and twenty Blackbirds baked in a pie'. Back in days of old, little clay whistles were baked into the pastry on the top of pies. These whistles were shaped like the heads of blackbirds with the beak wide open. The theory was, and this does actually work, that when the pie was cut, and the crust was broken, the cold air outside would meet the hot contents inside creating lots of steam. The steam would then rise up through the whistles, making the 'birds' heads' indeed appear to sing.

And if you imagine 24 birds' heads, you can imagine the size of the pie - fit enough, indeed, for the king's table.

Alternative Interpretations

Another theory suggests that Blackbirds were considered a culinary delicacy and so they were fit for royal consumption, therefore we have the line, 'Isn't this a dainty dish to set before the King' Although, on reflection, the pie couldn't have been cooked for very long if the birds were still able to sing. All of a sudden the dish seems somehow less dainty.

There's also reputed to be extra lines we can jemmy in to the whole thing. For instance:

The King was in his counting-house
Counting lots of money
The Queen was in the garden
Eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden
Hanging out the clothes
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose

Maybe these lines exist only to give the illusion of time passing by, a sort of 'while away the minutes' pre-curser to the denouement of actual pie eating. But we can't really be sure. What we can know is that the Queen had a rather developed sense of appetite as we're told she's eating bread and honey, not caring a jot that supper's almost ready.

But what's the poem actually about? There's a theory that it's about Henry VIII and his six wives, and that the maid hanging out the washing in the garden is Anne Boleyn, blissfully unaware of her fate, that one day she would be beheaded.

More specifically, the rhyme might relate to the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII. The story goes that King Henry had the deeds of 24 monasteries (the blackbirds) concealed in a pie which was sent to a friend of his in the south west of England by means of a messenger. The messenger, Jack Horner, opened the pie and stole the valuable contents. Apparently the property remained in the Horner family for generations.

A Researcher's kind-hearted auntie once created a pleasant addendum that softened the blow of the traditional ending - that of the Hitchcock-esque blackbird biting off the nose of a young girl. She used to finish her rendition thus:

She made such a commotion
That little Jenny Wren
Flew down from her tree
And stuck it on again

Ahhh... pity the same can't be said of Anne Boleyn.

London's Burning

London's burning, London's burning
Fetch the engine, fetch the engine
Fire, fire! Fire, fire!
Pour on water, pour on water

'London's Burning' is a perennial favourite of school assembly halls up and down the country, where proud and grinning piano teachers pound the ivories, accompanied by hundreds of smiling children singing in 'rounds'2, swaying in time in joyous harmony. That's the theory, anyway. The desperate reality is that kids deliberately take advantage of the round's difficulty and its tendency to become confused unless carefully sung, resulting in them shouting out random nonsense in fits of laughter, causing the entire round to collapse in disarray. For years, school renditions of 'London's Burning' have sounded like the very noise of hell itself.

This nursery rhyme refers to the Great Fire of London in 1666 which devastated the east of the city and which destroyed the original St Paul's Cathedral which was made out of wood3. The rhyme also raises the question of when it was actually penned. Was it written a long time after the event, since there were probably no fire engines in existence in 17th Century England? If indeed there did exist primitive forms of the fire engine at that particular time, given the overall outcome, one would have to conclude that they were absolutely rubbish.

But perhaps there was no fire brigade in 1666. If your house was burning, you would simply rely on your kindly neighbours for help. If, both your neighbours' houses were burning too, then you were probably best advised to run away. Quickly.

However, the fire did almost wipe out the plague which had ravaged the city at that time. And Charles II actually benefited from the blaze. He was already in a shaky position (this was the Restoration, after all) but the aftermath of the fire created lots work for the population, the Guilds grew and the rebuilding of St Paul's Cathedral created much-needed, long-term employment.

Great Chicago Fire

On 8 October, 1871, the American city of Chicago was also afflicted by a huge fire, documented in the following enigmatic little rhyme:

Late last night when we were all in bed
(boom boom boom boom)
Old Lady Leary lit a lantern in the shed
But when the cow kicked it over
She winked her eye and said
'There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight'
Fire! Fire! Fire!

The Great Chicago Fire almost destroyed the entire city.

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again

This jolly nursery rhyme is yet another classic example of a rhyme which deals with the subject of mortality in such a light-hearted manner as to be almost laughing in the face of death itself. It refers to the English King Charles I. At the time Charles was a very strong believer in the divine right of kings. Understandably so - he was a king. This severely annoyed members of Parliament, who didn't like the fact that he continually went against them. Charles kept this up for a while, until it came to a time when he needed more money for more soldiers for his army in order to put down the threat of an uprising.

Naturally, Parliament didn't trust the king with more money/soldiers, fearing he'd turn this army into Royalists and against Parliament. If the king was to have more money from Parliament, he would have to relinquish some of his ruling powers. Charles, however, decided to press his point by showing up at Parliament and arresting five Parliamentary Members in response to this list of reform demands they issued to him. At this point, both sides called up their respective armies. In the ensuing battle, Charles lost, got convicted of treason and was beheaded - hence the rhyme, 'all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty back together again'.

Some Modern Children's Nursery Rhymes

The modern children's rhymes of Shel Silverstein are read religiously by many. He started out writing adult poetry for Playboy magazine, when someone convinced him that he would be great at writing children's poetry. He resisted for a long time, but finally gave in. Some of his children's books include, Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, Falling Up, and probably his most famous work, The Giving Tree.

Here are some fine examples of his work:

Inside everybody's nose
There lives a sharp-toothed snail
So if you stick your finger in
He may bite off your nail
Stick it farther up inside
And he may bite your ring off
Stick it all the way, and he
May bite the whole darn thing off
Tell me I'm clever
Tell me I'm kind
Tell me I'm talented
Tell me I'm cute
Tell me I'm sensitive
Graceful and wise
Tell me I'm perfect -
But tell me the truth
Small as a peanut
Big as a giant
We're all the same size
When we turn off the light
Red, black or orange
Yellow or white
We all look the same
When we turn off the light
So maybe the way
To make everything right
Is for God to just reach out
And turn off the light!
Did you hear 'bout Ticklish Tom?
He got tickled by his mom
Wiggled and giggled and fell on the floor
Laughed and rolled right out the door
All the way to school and then
He got tickled by his friends
Laughed till he fell off his stool
Laughed and rolled right out of school
Down the stairs and finally stopped
Till he got tickled by a cop
And all the more that he kept gigglin'
All the more folks kept ticklin'
He shrieked and screamed and rolled around
Laughed his way right out of town
Through the country down the road
He got tickled by a toad
Past the mountains across the plain
Tickled by the falling rain
Tickled by the soft brown grass
Tickled by the clouds that passed
Giggling, rolling on his back
He rolled on the railroad track
Rumble, rumble, whistle, roar -
Tom ain't ticklish any more

There's Something About Mary

No other nursery rhyme character has been subjected to the kind of subversion that Mary and her little lamb have had to endure throughout the ages.

Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow
And every where that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go

That was the original. Innocent, pure, evocative of a pastoral age, where beast and human lived their hours together in peaceful tandem. But, apart from maybe William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, nowhere is our spectacular fall from grace so mercilessly documented than in the way we've treated Mary and her poor wee lamb. We took away their innocence forever:

Mary had a little lamb
And the midwife had a heart attack
Mary had a little lamb
It had a touch of colic
She gave it brandy twice a day
And now it's an alcoholic
Mary had a little lamb
She tied it to a pylon
36,000 megahertz went up its bum
And turned its wool to nylon
Mary had a little lamb
Her father shot it dead
Now Mary takes the lamb to school
Between two hunks of bread
Mary had a little lamb
Tommy had a pup
Alfonzo had a crocodile
That ate the others up
Mary had a little lamb
You've heard this tale before
But did you know she passed her plate
And had a little more
Mary had a little lamb
She thought it rather silly
She threw it up into the air
And caught it by its willy

Here's Something That's Not About Mary

In fact, the following rhyme is a tiny vignette concerning itself with the principal social dilemma we face in the 21st Century - the inequitable distribution of the world's wealth and resources:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe
She said, 'With my pension, that's all I can do
It may be substandard, but just down the block
I know an old lady who lives in a sock.'

Scary Geese and Frightened Children

A cursory look at the 1924 edition of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes makes interesting reading and begs the question, 'What makes parents want to read these explicit rhymes to such small children?' Such daring!

Jack's goose and her gander
Grew very fond
They'd both eat together
Or swim in one pond

Or, how about this one:

Goosey, goosey, gander
Whither shall I wander
Upstairs, and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber

I bet you didn't sleep well after being sung this one at bedtime:

Cry, baby, cry
Put your finger in your eye
And tell your mother it wasn't I

It's also been said that 'Goosey Goosey Gander' is about the religious persecution of Catholics in England in the time of the Reformation when it was illegal to be Catholic and especially to be a Catholic priest. The first verse could well be about the exhaustive searches for Catholic priests hiding in priest holes in large country homes4.

Sapphire and Steel

Continuing the slightly macabre theme, Sapphire and Steel, a spooky sci-fi series shown in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s used nursery rhymes to chilling effect. A couple of the plots were heavily based on these nursery rhymes, making claims on their magical powers due to their antiquity and the nature of their themes. In Adventure Four - Sapphire and Steel never named individual episodes - there was one particular nursery rhyme that put the fear of the Almighty in to many children who stayed up to watch the programme, but who then had to walk upstairs alone in the dark to their bedrooms to hide beneath the sheets listening to the sound of their beating hearts.

As I was going up the stairs
I met a man who wasn't there
I met that man again today
I wish, I wish, he'd go away

Some Random Humorous Nursery Rhymes

But now you can cheer yourself up with the following:

Hickory, Dickory, Dock
Three mice ran up the clock
The clock struck one
And the other two got away with minor injuries
Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater
Had a wife and couldn't keep her
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well
Peter Piper, chimney sweeper
Had a wife and couldn't keep her
Had another, didn't love her
Up the chimney he did shove her

... quite worrying sentiments to teach a small child, that. Anyway, the following chemistry lesson is most amusing:

Johnny is a chemist
But Johnny is no more
For what he thought was H20
was H2S04

Not only is this little ditty funny but it's also informative and admonitory. It's a very useful mnemonic device to remember what the formula is for sulphuric acid. Also, when read dramatically this poem can bring a tear to the eye. As of course would sulphuric acid. Or how about the curious eating habits of Little Miss Muffet...

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on her tuffet5
Eating her curds and whey
Along came a spider
And sat down beside her
So she ate that too

The following little gem conjures up dark winter nights, perhaps reminiscent of those once described in Thomas Hardy's rural Dorset. The idea is that when the men come in from the fields they'll take over the fire, so the children have to get warm while they have the chance. Possibly not a nursery rhyme, but a nice little ditty, nonetheless.

Warmy warmy totey wotes
Warmy warmy totey wotes
Warmy warmy totie-woties
Warmy by the fire
Warmy warmy totie-woties
The men have gone to plough
If you want to warm your toties
Warm your toties now...

Old Abraham Brown

It's the ability of nursery rhymes to allude to things, their elliptical nature, that makes them so fascinating. They share a lot in common with the Japanese Haiku format. Less structured, perhaps, than their Japanese cousins, they nonetheless contain within them tiny sparks which ignite our imagination. Perhaps Sapphire and Steel were right, perhaps nursery rhymes do have certain strange powers. Often they are evocative, like sudden flashes of colour, or like fleeting memories that bubble up unbidden. Nursery rhymes mysteriously breeze in and out of our lives, a bit like we breeze in and out of life itself:

Old Abraham Brown is dead and gone
You'll never see him more
He used to wear a long brown coat
That hang-ed down before
1Parts of Blackheath, it is said, remain undeveloped due to a prevailing fear of re-releasing the plague.2The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a 'round' as being 'for three or more unaccompanied voices or parts, each singing the same theme but starting one after the other'. 3What is also interesting is that the Temple - home of the inns and churches of the Knights Templar - was relatively unscathed by the fire because it was protected by gardens on every side, some of which still exist today.4 Although not strictly a nursery rhyme the song 'The Twelve days of Christmas' also dates from the Reformation when it wasn't wise to teach your children Catholicism too openly. Each number was relevant to an aspect of Catholic belief and helped children remember what they couldn't advertise too loudly. For instance, 12 was the Apostles, seven was the seven deadly sins and the seven virtues, four was the gospels, five was the sorrowful and the glorious mysteries and so on.5A tuffet is either a tuft, clump or grassy hillock, or a footstool or low seat.

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