Was randomly surfing Bangalore blogs today and came across this post about nursery rhymes on Romila's blog. Interesting background stories on a couple of puzzling, no-context nursery rhymes.
And of course it got me thinking. I've had long discussions on this topic before, and now I'll write it down.
Nursery rhymes have disturbed me ever since I was old enough to realise that the words might mean something after all, and that I should look beyond the mere magic of easy melody and basic rhyme scheme.
Of all the standard, popular nursery rhymes doing the rounds worldwide, I can only think of a few as being harmless and childlike and straight as an arrow. "Twinkle, twinkle, little star", "Pat A Cake, Baker-Man", "Ol' MacDonald", "Incy Wincy Spider/ Itsy Bitsy Spider", "One Two, Buckle My Shoe" and "Hey Diddle Diddle" are the few kosher rhymes.
Most every other nursery rhyme is violent, disturbing, perverse, puzzling, abstruse or downright tragic. I'm telling you, I can't think of a single other innocent rhyme for kids.
Let's have a gander at the bestseller nursery rhyme list:
1. Baa Baa Black Sheep - To begin at the beginning, we have a black sheep. Can alliteration be the only reason this particular tint was chosen? Has it not got something to do with Him Who Must Not Be Named? The black arts? Sauron? 666? Hmmm? Huh?
Why is the little boy crying down the lane? Some versions have him 'living' down there but we all know he was crying, so don't try and mollycoddle me now. And what's with this medieval era portrayal of the sheep having a master and a dame? I can understand the shepherd being subservient and a serf, but even the animals? Bah.
2. Jack and Jill - First off all, the math is all wrong. Both Jack and Jill had to go uphill to fetch A [one?] pail of water? Must have been a bloody big pail. If it was such a heavy-duty task, you shouldn't be sending kids up a hill to 'fetch' it in the first place. That's just nasty. And then, why introduce that sudden, violent accident with Jack doing a tumble, breaking his crown [!!!] AND Jill nonchalantly following him after. Mercy. In the extended version of the poem, after the traumatic first para, there is a coldly scientific second that follows:
"Up Jack got
And home did trot
As fast as he could caper.
Went to bed
To mend his head
With vinegar and brown paper."
Please note- No mention at all of Jill. She's been given up for good just like that. We can expect the announcement of her memorial service any moment.
3. Hush-a-bye-baby/ Rock-a-bye-baby: This has got to be the worst, most morbid and distasteful piece of work ever written. And it is one of the most popular rhymes because of its soothing, loving tune. It's like an evil conspiracy meant to beguile normally well-meaning innocents into crooning this travesty. You can't stop singing it once you've started because it's so darn sweet. Like Lays, no one can eat just one. "Ek baar gaaoge to gaate reh jaaoge." Until the words hit home.
Good Lord, why has the baby been placed on or around a treetop? And then there's the gradual, sinister, line-by-line build-up: wind blows, cradle rocks, bough breaks - to the worst nightmarish scenario imaginable: the cradle falls, down comes baby, cradle and all. [What else IS there?] Please note, all of this should be warbled lovingly and if possible, with a maternal smile on the mug.
4. Ding dong bell, pussy in the well: This is wrong on so many levels, I blush to think of it. From a purely innocent point of view [Ignoring the semantics, I mean: "Ding-dong", "pussy", and what's all this about Johnny Thin and Stout?], this treats the drowning of felines in a very off-hand, casual manner which kids shouldn't be exposed to.
5. It's raining, it's pouring, the old man is snoring: And within a matter of seconds, we've established that he's landed himself a fatal knock to his blocker and he won't awake again in this world at least.
6. Pop! goes the weasel: A clueless child thankfully will never even begin to comprehend the dark, tragic, working class poverty allusions this one provides. Hell, it's obscure even for us grown-ups but we get the picture at least. The dull, despairing, unjust picture.
7. One, two, three, four, five; Once I caught a fish alive: Visuals of a live, agitated, fluttering fish on its death bed, followed up by the appetizing story of how it managed to bite the protagonist's little finger on the right. Again, a favourite because of the 'cute' actions that accompany the song.
8. Lucy Locket lost her pocket: Loss of money [very big deal for kids], resultant guilt, and that loose character Kitty Fisher opening a purse that didn't belong to her!!!!
9. Humpty Dumpty: Ahem. The name is suspect. Very unnecessary for an egg. That apart, it's another sad and sudden accident with no hope of recovery.
10. Sing a song of sixpence: Blackbirds baked into a pie? And then they come out alive? A penny-pinching, miserly king counting out his pennies, an idle, lazy queen eating for no apparent reason at obviously the wrong time of the day [avoid meals between meals!] and the unfortunate, hard-at-work, lower class maid who has her nose lacerated at the end.
11. Hot Cross Buns: Also of the "Pussy in the well" genre. *Grin* At two-a-penny even! With the sensible retailer's advice of "If you have no daughters, give them to your sons."
12. Simple Simon: No money, no food. Damn.
13. London Bridge: It's going down, baby. Forget about it.
14. Three Blind Mice: Good grief. Torturing blind animals with a chopping knife.
15. Little Bo Peep: Loses her 'lambkins' and then we learn of their tails being hung out to dry on trees. Eeeeyuk.
There are many, many more macabre, ridiculous and incredible rhymes that, in a sensible world, shouldn't be. Feel free to add to the list along with your interpretation/summary of their horrors.
But frankly, who cared about the words when we were kids? I only know that I derived great pleasure and took much pride in my 'singing' prowess back then; the intense distress of my parents, neighbours, extended family, casual visitors, random guests, tele-salesmen (over the phone), delivery boys etc, in short, anyone within hearing distance, was a regular feature of my growing up days. I have caused such frowns of displeasure, even from normally benign and patient acquaintances, as would make angels weep. Those were good times.
Nostalgic note: I had the most amazing Sing-Along-Pop-Up Book of Nursery Rhymes and I am not ashamed to admit that I used to excitedly Sing Along till well past the age of 8.