The Real Meaning of Nursery Rhymes

Sex, death and cruelty. Chris Roberts, the author of Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, tells Debbie Elliott what lurks beneath the surface of those verses we learned as children.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

"Baa, Baa Black Sheep" is actually a protest against taxation. Who knew? And "Sing a Song of Sixpence"? It's about King Henry VIII and his break from the Catholic Church. London librarian Chris Roberts was moonlighting as a walking tour guide when he discovered that nursery rhymes had juicy histories. Now he's compiled those tales into a book. It's called "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme." He joins me now from our London bureau.

Welcome, Chris.

Mr. CHRIS ROBERTS (Author, "The Reason Behind the Rhyme"): Thank you.

ELLIOTT: I want to read the first line from the introduction in your book. Here it is.: `It should come as no surprise that nursery rhymes are full of sex, death and cruelty.' Now, really, that does come as somewhat of a surprise to me.

Mr. ROBERTS: I'll pick an obvious one. `Ding-dong bell, pussy in the well. Who put her in? Little Johnny Flynn.' It's quite clearly the tale of a little boy putting a cat in a well. And as we all know, cats can't swim. Some are more blatantly cruel, and others are more coded in their meanings. It's to do with words in English changing the meaning over time. It's to do with changing assumptions of what we think of as childhood. Childhood is a relatively recent phenomena, certainly over the last couple of hundred years, that children are seen as very separate from adults. So there would be no reason in the past not to have what would now be considered adult themes in rhymes that children could hear and sing.

ELLIOTT: Well, let's get to a little sex and debauchery from your book, "Goosey Goosey Gander." Why don't you recite that for us first?

Mr. ROBERTS: `Goosey Goosey Gander, where 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 the left leg and threw him down the stairs.' Where do I begin with this? A key--this is a very good example of a word that has changed its meaning over the centuries. Now in the 16th, 17th and possibly into the 18th century in England, the word `goose' meant prostitute. The phrase `to be bitten by a goose' meant to contact a venereal disease from the working girls.

And this rhyme's quite interesting. There's a number of theories about this rhyme. One is that it ties into Henry VIII and his taking land from the Catholic Church. There were two prongs to Henry's attack. One was he took the land; the other was a propaganda offensive, and this rhyme becomes part of that. The rhyme associates the Catholic Church with prostitution, and this is reinforced slightly more in the second verse, where you have `There I met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers, took him by the left leg, threw him down the stairs.' The not saying the prayers bit is relating to the new English Prayer Book--that was a Protestant Prayer Book--and the left leg is--I don't know if this works in America, actually, but in England, left leg or left-footer is a term for Catholic. And so there you have the rhyme linking the Catholic Church to immoral acts. So, yeah.

ELLIOTT: So from sex and religion to taxes why don't we go?

Mr. ROBERTS: Why don't we? Yes. Yes.

ELLIOTT: We talked a little bit at the beginning of our conversation about "Baa, Baa Black Sheep." I'm going to recite this one: `Baa, baa black sheep, have you any wool? Yes, sir. Yes, sir, three bags full. One for the master and one for the dame and one for the little boy who lives down the lane.'

I guess I can see that this would have something to do with paying taxes, but not really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBERTS: This is quite an old rhyme, actually; this goes back to the 12th century at least. And the wealth of England was very much based on wool. The lord chancellor still sits on a wool sack in the House of Commons to remind everyone about that. And "Baa, Baa Black Sheep" was a lament from the farmers of England who in the rhyme are represented by the little boy. The other two figures in the rhyme, the master and the dame, are--the master is the king or the king's representatives; the local nobility would collect revenue on behalf of the king--and the dame is the church. So you have these very punitive tax rates of 66 percent; a third to the church, third to the church and a third left for the poor little farmer. That's the basis of the rhyme. It's an early example of no taxation without representation, I believe.

ELLIOTT: Next, can you read us "Sing a Song of Sixpence"?

Mr. ROBERTS: `Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye, four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Now wasn't that a dainty dish to set before a king? The king was in his counting house counting out his money; the queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey. The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes when along came a blackbird and it nipped off her nose.'

Now potentially--certainly the first part, is just a description of a meal, about baking, baking birds in a pie and the whistling of the steam when the pie is cooked. The other theory--again, it's relating to Henry VIII...

ELLIOTT: Again?

Mr. ROBERTS: ...more specifically--I know, again. There seems to be a golden age of nursery rhymes in Britain where they--from basically Henry VIII's time, which is 16th century, to the Tudor monarchs to the end of the Stuarts, which is a couple of years later. And it was a time when England was sorting itself out religiously. It was a time of religious wars, it was a time of great divisions in society. We had our own civil war during that period. And a lot of the rhymes seem to come from that time. It seems to be a great flowering for English folk song.

But the theory with the counting house bit is that the maid is Ann Boleyn, who's Henry's second wife, and that the queen is his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. And it's telling the story--the first queen is off in the parlor, kind of out of the action and that the second queen, who Henry divorced and then executed, has her nose snipped off by the blackbirds, which here apparently represent the church.

Mr. ROBERTS: Well, Chris Roberts, we'll be coming back to you in the coming weeks for some more reasons behind the rhymes.

Chris Roberts is the author of "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown." He's also a librarian at Lambeth College in south London and the proprietor of F and M Walking Tours.

Thank you.

Mr. ROBERTS: Thank you very much.

ELLIOTT: If you'd like to offer your comments, in rhyme or prose, go to our Web site, npr.org, and click on `Contact us,' select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and send us your thoughts. Please tell us where you live, include a phone number and tell us how to pronounce your name.

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