Nursery Rhymes — A Saga of Morbid Backstories & Twisted Lyrics

Written By: Barnali Sarkar

If I tell you that Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, and Mother Goose, the imaginary yet legendary author of English Nursery rhymes can be counted as the greatest names in writing dark poems or literary works, you will point out that either I have got the genre wrong or committed a blunder by mixing up the names and messed it all up big time! Particularly so if I include Mother Goose in this club….After all, how can poems meant for children have any morbid element in them? But if we dwell on their words and try to decipher their meaning, we will find that a lot of these ditties have macabre backstories cleverly ensconced in them. 

Nursery rhymes made their maiden appearance back in the 14th century. And if we read between the lines, we can see veiled messages about the life and times of the people back in those days. One can see how people painted with words images of illnesses, unfair taxes imposed on the common man, relentless religious persecution, murder, violence, sex, and even prostitution. Surely you would agree that these are not topics for children, particularly so if they are in the form of apparently harmless nursery rhymes! Let us look at a few of these timeless rhymes that have held us enthralled over many centuries and unpick the meanings behind them.

  • Baa, Baa, Black Sheep (1731): This 18th-century nursery rhyme speaks about the Great Custom, a medieval tax on wool that was introduced in 1275 by King Edward I that gave a third of the cost to the King (i.e., the Master), a third to the Church referred to as the Dame, and the rest to the farmer, “but none for the little boy who cries in the lane”. In other words, nothing was left for the little shepherd boy who lived down the lane. Moreover, the color black and the word “Master” had racial innuendos. Also, black sheep were considered to bring bad luck and their fleece couldn’t be dyed; hence they were less lucrative for farmers.


  • Jack and Jill (1765): One account of this rhyme refers to King Charles I’s attempt to reform the liquor tax. When Parliament rejected the King’s suggestion, he reduced the volume of liquor on half- and quarter-pints, popularly known as Jacks and Gills, respectively, to get his way. But another version refers to the adulterous affair of a couple who would go up the hill for their rendezvous or “to fetch a pail of water” while “Jack fell down and broke his crown” discreetly implies that Jack cracked his skull as the result of a fall. 


  • Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary (1744): The nursery rhyme refers to the homicidal Queen Mary I of England or Bloody Mary. The “silver bells” were thumbscrews and “cockleshells” instruments of torture attached to the male genitalia, “pretty maids all in a row” denotes miscarriages or the execution of Lady Jane Grey who was sent to the guillotine, while the “garden” refers to the graveyards that became larger day by day due to the relentless executions of scores of Protestants. 


  • Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1840): This song speaks about England’s Wakefield Prison known as Monster Mansion, and the mulberry tree in its exercise yard used by women prisoners.


  • Ring A Ring O Rosies / Ring Around The Rosie (1881): The lyrics of this popular rhyme refers to the 1665 Great Plague of London. “The Rosie” depicts the malodorous rash that covered the skin of the people suffering from the bubonic plague, and the stench that emanated from the rashes causing people to conceal it with “a pocket full of posies.” And the lines “Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down” points to the large number of people who died.


  • Rub-A-Dub-Dub: The American version of this nursery rhyme speaks about three tradesmen (a butcher, baker, and a candlestick maker) all hanging out in a tub. But the original one — “Hey, rub-a-dub, ho, rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub” — depicts a rather erotic image of nude ladies in a tub at a fair while the three tradesmen ogle at them.


  • Pop Goes The Weasel: The roots of this Cockney rhyme can be traced back to the 1700s when men would pawn their best coat to raise money to buy drinks. The Cockney community developed a slang as they did not trust strangers and the police. Hence “pop goes the weasel” was slang for “pawn your coat” and the Eagle referred to the Eagle tavern situated on London’s City Road. The lyrics speak about pawnbroking, poverty, and minimum wages.

In the medieval era, criticizing royalty or politicians was considered a crime, and the punishment meted out was death or persecution. And nursery rhymes were a potent way to convey secrets or thinly veiled messages and warnings in the guise of children’s entertainment. For example, Goosey Goosey Gander may be about religious persecution, while Lucy Locket is about the infamous sparring of words between two famous 18th Century courtesans.

But not all nursery rhymes were the stuff of nightmares. Some even contained words of wisdom. For instance, For Want of a Nail, reminds children to contemplate about the possible consequences that a single thoughtless action can bring about. And it’s best to leave the hidden meanings for dad and mom to decipher while kiddies enjoy the apparently goofy and ageless poems and songs…..


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