Thursday, November 08, 2007

Who wrote this stuff?

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.


Apoorv Gawde said...

Ba Ba Black sheep is apparerntly about Slave labour

Three Blind Mice is about the Lynchings

Ring-a Ring-a Roses about the plague :)

There was this Disney cartoon I had watched that explained the meaning of the rhymes. Most of them have dark histories, very cool me thinks!!

Dreamer said...

i m sure you won't let your kids sing these nursery rhymes :D

thanks for dropping by my blog. u for sure scared my ^^^^ off coz of of the instructors keeps saying exhale always... i could relax only after i realized that you are female :)

longblackveil said...

@Apoorv: Yes, all have intriguing back stories, which kids should be kept far away from. Was reading up on some of them yesterday and had to keep rubbing my eyes in shock.

@Dreamer: I am indeed very female. My commiserations that you don't have any female instructors. :)

Sidin said...

He he he.

The commentary was particularly hilarious.


Babur said...

ummm...what i think you all need to do is goto this site...explains everything nicely..with pictures, no less!! woohooo...Pak won!!!

Jellicles said...

baa baa black sheep is about taxation...1/3 went to the church ..1/3 to the king and only 1/3 for the farmer to sell.

of course, ring a ring a roses was about the bubonic used to appear like a pink circle on the skin..achoo achoo was the sneezing..also another when they burnt the bodies of the dead..finally, posies were flowers they carried around in pouches that warded off the offensive smells.

i am almost positive that 'there was a crooked man' was really about richard iii...and the cat and the mouse was william catesby and richard ratcliffe.

p.s. found this..obviously, the rhyme was a more benign, we know that richard iii was probably not deformed..with the limp and withered hand...but this was long held true..mostly due to shakespeare's depiction of him in his tragedy, richardIII..shkespeare himself was probably influenced by thomas more's writings..both of whom held unflattering views of richard the third because of their allegience to the house of tudor who had essentially won the throne from the house of york..of course, the negative portryal probably had something to do with the princes in the tower too.

[..] ...during the reign of Richard III, the poet William Colingbourne wrote the following:

The Cat, the Rat, and Lovel our Dog,

Do rule all England, under a Hog.

The “Cat” was the crafty lawyer Sir William Catesby who, through the help of the crown, lined his pockets through graft. The “Rat” described Sir Richard Ratcliffe who exhibited the traits of the offensive rodent “to gnawe on whom he should.” Lord Lovell’s crest was a dog, and King Richard’s emblem was a wild boar, a hog. Colingbourne’s meaning had been a bit too transparent. The poet was executed on Tower Hill in 1484.

sing a song of six pence was supposedly about king henry and catherine of aragon..and anne boleyn was the was a way for people to 'gossip' about royalty in the way of rhymes.

the sequel to the above was "little jack horner"..jack horner(richard whiting?) was real..he was the stewart who was transporting 24 deeds to manorial estates hidden in a xmas was sent by the abbot of glastonbory to henry the eighth when he was claiming all church properties in his war against catholicism. jack horner stole the pie and deeds..kept 'the plum' for himself..the estate of mells. his descendants still live in the estate their ancestor stole!

following..three blind mice..they were the protestants killed by queen mary 1(predecessor of queen elizabeth i...daughter of henry viii and catherine of aragon..) who along with the crazy prince philip of spain went on a rampage against protestants.

what bridge is for real..narrating the several fires of london. i think rhymes were a way of transmitting current affairs/news in song and rhyme.

i bet ding dong bell and jack and jill had sexual innuendo somewhere there..probably wont discuss it here..

rock a bye baby and little miss muffet do have very real family names.

thats all i can think of..

Anonymous said...

Will you teach your kids only happy songs? Will you tell your kids that this world is a happy place? Will you tell them it all depends on the 'way' you look at things?

Are you ready to lose their trust?


Verging Writer said...

Clever post. Made me smile.

And then there are fairy-tales - oh, don't get me started!

Pranjal said...

I always thought 'Jack-n-Jill' was a BAD-BAD rhyme. Especially after I read the second para! I refrained from that one every time I was asked to recite a rhyme :)! Smart-kid eh?!

sumantics said...

Amazing - the kind of insights I get from reading your blog. Well done, Saab.

As for things we did well past 8, let me not reproduce what I used to do here.

Deepti said...

I have a faint memory reading somewhere that Jack and Jill is about a queen... Mary Antoinette?.. I don't know.

longblackveil said...

bob, jellicle, deepti: Yup. Every one of these rhymes has an 'interesting' story behind it. I am just stunned by the adults who formed these lovely informative ditties to entertain kids with.

@Anon: Really, sir, I am not going into defensive overdrive here. I enjoyed these rhymes as a kid and have been passing them on to the next gen with great gusto. A kid doesn't understand/know the anecdotal histories of the rhyme. And they don't much care either. It's just superb fun to sing, dance and annoy elders with. :)
As far as how these nursery rhymes affect children, they don't do anything except make life a little more enjoyable. [Except when parents force kids to stand up in front of random aunty-jis and uncle-jis and say, "Chalo, now sing that nice nursery rhyme." [Glaring meaningfully...]
"Are you ready to lose their trust?" - Erm. That's just silly. No, I shan't be doing any such thing. You need to relax.

Jellicles said...

i think it mostly started as a way to spread gossip in the safest way possible(read as gossiping about royalty without getting your head lopped off...afterall..with a cutesy story told to a kid, no king's men is going to look for hidden meanings)...mother goose is relatively benign and was meant for children. it was probably a way for kids to go a time rewind and go 'ah-hah' when they are old enough to be told the real meaning..afterall, from where these rhymes originated, the gory tales are part of their history...i think in india, it was mostly a way for kids to learn rhyme and the english language.

on the other hand, i do remember tamil 'rhymes' or rather songs taught to children...they were all geared towards teaching the tamil alphabet or the numbers etc. i dont think the 'interesting' english rhymes were meant for kids at all in the first place...

longblackveil said...

*Agrees with Jellicle*

@Sidin: Waiting for more on your blog, Sid Saar. You can't just take off for a couple of days with the excuse of Diwali? What about us, your ardent readership?

@ Sumantics: Shush. We'll discuss the embarrassing 'After-Eight' stories over lunch at Fresco's some day. ;)

romila said...

Interesting piece on the very horrifying topic. And thanks for coming by my blog. Count me on as an assured reader henceforth, without doubt.