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The Gruesome Truth Behind Popular Children’s Songs

Published by Dakota Skye in History
October 13th, 2008

We’ve all grown up with similar variations of the same nursery rhymes. Many of us don’t realize is that there is generally an extensive history, as well as a surprising past, behind most of these popular songs. What may sound like innocent lyrics may harbor a gruesome truth.

“Rock-A-Bye Baby”

“Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetops,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.”

There are several supposed origins to this story, but what it is clear is that when a young pilgrim sailed to America, he observed the Native American women rocking their babies in birch-bark cradles, often suspended from trees. The breeze through the branches would rock the baby to sleep. The branches holding the cradle, however, were often susceptible to breakage, causing the cradle to fall and injure the baby. This particular nursery rhyme, however, is rumored to have been written after a terrible accident involving the Earl of Sandwich’s son. The baby was supposedly tossed without warning from his cradle. The cradle was later found in the Thames river, empty.

“All the Pretty Little Horses”

“Hush-a-bye, Don’t you cry
Go to sleep my little ba-by;
When you wake,you shall have,all the pretty little horses.
Dapples and Greys, Pintos and Bays, Coach and six little horses….
Way down yonder in the meadow
poor little baby cries mama
birds and butterflies flutter ’round his eyes
poor little baby cries mama

This is a lullaby that also has disturbing origins, but of a different sort. It was originally written by an African American slave and sung to her master’s child. Because of her preoccupation with the care of her master’s child, she was forced to neglect her own child. In the second verse, the slave refers to her own child, alone and unable to care for himself. Originally, the lyrics read, “Birds and butterflies, peck at his eyes,” but was later changed to make the lullaby less violent.

“Three Blind Mice”

“Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife
She cut off their tails with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a thing in your life
As three blind mice.”

There is a strong theory that suggests that this nursery rhyme refers to the blinding and execution of three protestant bishops by Queen Mary I of England. The earlier lyrics, which include the phrase, “she scrapte her tripe licke thou the knife,” implies that the old farmer’s wife tasted the blood of the mice, just as the Queen tasted the blood of her slain adversaries, the bishops.

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  1. Kaz Silvestri
    Posted October 15, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    Very good, did you hear of the origins of Ring a Ring a Rosie, a pocket full of Posie? From the Black Death era.

  2. DakotaSkye
    Posted October 15, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    Yes, that was actually the nursery rhyme I had in mind when I started this article, but when I researched it, I found many sources that said that the “Ring around the Rosie” rhyme was not actually about the Black Death. I really wanted to add it because it made a lot of sense to me that that was what it was about, but I wanted to make sure my facts were straight. And with so many conflicting sources, I couldn’t be sure that that was really the message behind it. Thank you though. I should add it anyway, just because it’s probably the most “gruesome” childrens’ rhyme out there!

  3. Judy Heathcoe
    Posted October 17, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Hey, that was a good article but way too short. I would have enjoyed more. There are many others I’m sure you know but how about this more modern one: “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks, when she saw what she had done, gave her mother 41″. Children deal with tragedy by making rhymes about it so I’ll bet the stories about the Ring-around-the-rosie rhyme is correct. You are right of course about there being no proof. And have you heard the jumprope rhyme? “Cinderella dressed in yellow went upstairs to kiss her fellow, made a mistake and kissed a snake and then she died with a belly ache.” Doesn’t that sound like a young man taking an innocent girl upstairs under pretense of making out only to be actually having sex and then she died in childbirth? Sometimes there doesn’t have to be proof. Just common sense. Hey, I could talk about this all day. This is good stuff. I commend your choice of subject. Keep up the good work Dakota.

  4. 3cardmonte
    Posted October 17, 2008 at 4:01 pm


  5. Lucas Dié
    Posted October 18, 2008 at 10:02 am

    great article – I hope more to follow?

  6. thestickman
    Posted October 26, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    I was hoping that this might include “Ring Around the Rosie”, a popular children’s rhyme that refers directly to the Great Plague, the tell-tale signs of ‘having it’ (the red rings caused by bite of infected fleas) were “…a pocket full of posies” and the “…ashes, ashes they all fall down!” which is exactly what was happening. People were falling down. Burning the dead bodies was the only way to eradicate the Bubonic Plague disease.

  7. Posted November 2, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    I will NEVER sing any of these again. Thanks for all the hard research.
    I hope there is a part two.

  8. Posted November 12, 2008 at 9:21 am

    At least row-row-row your boat is safe right?

  9. Posted July 8, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    “the hearse song”

  10. Katie
    Posted February 9, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    well the song jesus loves the little children is racists cause it says red and yellow black and white it should just say black and white red and yellow is racist against the red scare and chinese

  11. Alex ricale
    Posted September 9, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    This helped I\’m dooming a project on the real meanings of nursery rhymes for school and had some reasearch issues.

  12. Posted August 28, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    I Miss this kind of music, i wish our children stop listening to justin bieber and rebicca black and enjoy this innocent music

  13. Posted August 28, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    To keep me updated to your subjects please check out mine ;)

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