Open/close side menu

Things You Never Knew about Nursery Rhymes

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

I heard them when I was little, and there is a good chance you did too. And if you come from a place and culture where parents didn't indulge in this particular treat, you heard them in countless films when you were older. 

Many years ago, I was given a job of putting nursery rhymes to music for a company that supplied cassettes. (Amazingly, they are still kicking around thirty years later!) Part of the reason they asked me, other than being cheap, was that they wanted some that were lesser known, or better still completely forgotten, as well as the more famous ones. I would have to compose from scratch because it was no longer known if they ever had been put to music.

There was only one source for that kind of research - The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes edited by Iona and Peter Opie, two folklorists who are sadly no longer with us. Iona died in 2017.

First published in 1951, this is the go-to encyclopedia of everything nursery rhyme. But it really isn't a book for little children.  And as soon as you wade through the pages, you very quickly want to keep it as far from their innocent minds as possible.

Some thing you learn are quite interesting.

Remember Old Mother Hubbard?

Old Mother Hubbard,
Went to the cupboard,
To fetch her poor dog a bone;
But when she came there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

Yep. We all know that. But did you know there are another 13 verses? And that he dies, comes back to life, smokes a pipe, reads the news? And in the end, once the woman was worn herself thin trying to please him:

The dame made a curtsy,
The dog made a bow,
The same said, Your servant,
The dog said, Bow-Wow.

A somewhat different tale than the one I remembered. In my version, I sang it like a country and western song.

But it carries on from there. In some cases quite, erm, hallucinogenic..

I saw a fishpond all on fire
I saw a house bow to a squire
I saw a parson twelve feet high
I saw a cottage in the sky
I saw a balloon made of lead
I saw a coffin drop down dead
I saw two sparrows run a race
I saw two horses making lace
I saw a girl just like a cat
I saw a kitten wear a hat
I saw a man who saw these too
And said though strange they all were true.

What were they feeding the kids in 1889 when they read them this? We thought the Beatles were going on a psychedelic trip with Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, but perhaps not so much.

Some were the things of nightmares and make you realise why even now women have to battle for equality.  There were a couple following the shape of "This is the tale of Solomon Grundy" which are quite terrible. Like Tom who got married on Monday, then decided to beat his wife up, and it ends with the memorable lines:

Glad was Tom on Saturday night,
To bury his wife on Sunday.

Needless to say, I didn't put that one to music.

But there were a lot that were fun in this wonderful book. From "A gaping, wide-mouthed, waddling frog," to, "When I was a little girl about seven years old," (I got someone else to sing that!), and "There were three jovial Welshmen..."

There are hundreds in this book, all complete with histories, the various versions, research into their origins (a lot come from Germany, for instance) and so much more. The book is still on sale and you can get it from Amazon (I earn a little commission in the UK). I really do recommend it for Christmas or for any time. Just keep it away from the poor kids!  You may ruin them for life.

I will finish with a verse from one of my favourites, possibly because I think I did a good job with turning it into a bit of stomping country, and possibly because the kids who did the backing vocals loved it, despite the violence.

Mrs Bond she flew down to the pond in a rage,
With plenty of onions and plenty of sage;
She cried "Dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed,
For you must be stuffed and my customers filled!"

Sleep well!