Every culture has its oral traditions; songs, stories and poems that are passed from mother to child, grandfather to grandkid, nanny to ward. Throughout the ages, dozens of versions of similar tales pop up repeatedly across the world. Some of them are actually incredibly dark and some are lighthearted fare; others are more like an Aesop's fable, designed to illuminate something specific about human nature or impart some hard-earned advice. In some cultures, specific tales are turned into songs that retell them in a fashion that is suitable for all ages, as well as being extremely catchy.
In the West, these songs are often known as nursery rhymes, and they are generally ubiquitous. Many of them are European in origin, while others come from further afield. People don't tend to know their origins - for example, there's one that recognizes the Black Death, while another one is thought to refer to either child sacrifice, public executions, or possibly Henry VIII's various marital misadventures. In one sense, they are highly sanitized, while in another, they're actually familiarizing our kids with some really dark themes.
You don't have to know where they come from to remember them, of course! So click on through and let's see how well you know your nursery rhymes.
This is a super dark song about how people used to carry a "pocket full of posies" to stop them from smelling all the dead people during the Black Death. After cold-like symptoms, people started dying, hence "We all fall down."
This nursery rhyme is possibly about Henry VIII's love life. It may also be about child sacrifice or various other dark subjects.
Some people say this song, dating from the 1700s, is about the slave trade. Others say it is about taxes levied on the wool trade.
This song makes fun of Richard III, who lost the Wars of the Roses and thereby his head. He was the Duke of York and not much of a military man.
Frere Jacques is a monk who has overslept, hence he has not rung thebell for early prayers. That's the literal meaning of the song - "dormez-vous" meaning "are you sleeping" and "sonnez les matines" meaning "ring the bell for matins." There are disagreements about whether this refers to a specific historical monk.
This song has no particular meaning or origin. It's just a song that was designed to teach children to tell the time by successive verses telling the hours.
Humpty Dumpty was not always portrayed as an egg; that's a more recent addition due to later verses mentioning his "shell." It may refer to Richard III dying at the Battle of Bosworth Field, with the shell referring to his hunched back. It may also refer to Cardinal Wolsey, who was not buried in the traditional manner in his robes after angering King Henry VIII.
This song has a really dark origin. There was a mulberry tree at Wakefield Prison, which held women prisoners for over 400 years. They had to exercise very early by going around the tree repeatedly!
This song has no particular meaning, but it does have a nice origin. It was written in the 1950s to provide entertainment and education for disabled children.
Some say this song is about Mary, Queen of Scots, who feared religious reformer John Knox. Others say it's just a cute song written by a Dr. Thomas Muffet for his daughter.
This song is by Sarah Josepha Hale in 1830, and it has no secrets. It's about a real girl called Mary Sawyer, who had a lamb and took it to school.
This song makes a lot more sense if you're Cockney and know rhyming slang. It's nonsense if you don't, and indeed, there's an American version that ditches the older meanings and simply becomes a rather fun dance. It's about poor people being chased by cops and pawning their coats (weasel+stoat = coat) on a Monday, then getting them back in time for Sunday.
This song may be about Native American women putting their babies in birch bark cradles. However, it's also believed to be about how James II of England and Scotland was believed to have smuggled in a fake baby to his wife's birthing room to falsely extend the Stuart line (the "cradle") which didn't work because he was later deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
This song is American from 1852 or thereabouts. It is traditionally sung in rounds, with four voices - soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass - making a nice blend.
This one has a really cool and dark story. It's about three Protestant loyalists, the blind mice, who tried to kill England's Catholic Queen Mary I, the eldest child of Henry VIII. She is the "farmer's wife," due to her vast estates in Spain, care of her husband, Philip of Spain. As you can tell from the song, things did not go well for the Protestants.
This song dates to a poem by Jane Taylor from 1806, that was published with her sister Ann in a book called Rhymes for the Nursery. Many people set it to different melodies, even including Mozart!
Edward Lear wrote this song in 1871. It's just a lovely story about animals with no deeper meaning. Fun fact: the "runcible spoon" mentioned in the lyric is an old way of describing what today, we would call a spork!
Old MacDonald's song has been around for about 300 years in different iterations. It's an educational song to teach kids what noises different animals make.
This song was written in 1932 by teacher Marion Sinclair, who worked with the Girl Guides. She entered it into a contest and it won money to start a camping ground for girls. It then spread across the world.
This is a really, really old one - as in, it's probably more than 1,000 years old. The "hey diddle diddle" may even be a dance. Another fun fact is that "The cow jupmed over the moon" is the origin of the expression being "over the moon," meaning really happy about something.
This messed-up song is at least as old as 1580 (not a typo for 1850), though it has changed a lot. The words "ding dong bell" appear in Shakespeare, so clearly that phrase is in good standing.
This song may refer to King George, who ran away from England when the Scots invaded. It may also refer to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, or also to the arsonist who started the Great Fire of London.
This song doesn't really mean anything, but it's fun to do! It has accompanying moves that make it entertaining for all the family.
This song is in Little Mother Goose, which means it's older than 1912. It's possibly about a dementia patient, but may also be simply about an old man who dies!
The eensy-weensy spider is called itsy-bitsy in the U.S. In other English-speaking countries, however, it's eensy-weensy!
London Bridge is generally presumed to mean Tower Bridge, but they're not the same thing. The original London Bridge is now in Arizona, where it was bought as a tourist attraction and moved nearly 5,000 miles!
It's unclear who this refers to. It may be about Cardinal Wolsey refusing to divorce King Henry VIII from Katharine of Aragon. However this is considered a leap by some scholars.
The old woman in the shoe is an old song. It may just be about women who have more babies than they can care for, but it also may be making fun of King George II.
Do you know the Muffin Man, who lives on Drury Lane? Of course you do! In Victorian times, you couldn't just pop to the shop for baked goods. You had to order from the Muffin Man, who would deliver. Muffins are more like bread than cake in England, so this is not an unhealthy choice.
If you didn't have an oven back in the day, you'd make things and then take them to the baker to cook. He would mark them with a symbol or letter to ensure the right person got their cake back.
This song is about the wars between England and Scotland that resulted in the creation of the United Kingdom. From 1707, the two were united. The lion is the symbol of the English crown, the unicorn the symbol of the Scottish.
Jack Sprat was what short people were called in the 1600's. This is thus a really old song that joined the nursery rhyme pantheon when it was included in Mother Goose's Melodies in the 1700s.
Little Jack Horner is an old song that may refer to Jack Horner, a known servant of Henry VIII. It's more distinct origin and meaning is unclear.
This song is from a music hall tradition dating to Victorian times. It's called the Hokey Pokey in the U.S. and Hokey Cokey on the other side of the Atlantic. It's not clear how or why it changed.
This song has no bigger meaning. It is literally about the bus, the wheels, and how they work together. It's for children to amuse themselves on boring bus rides.