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I See Nursery Rhymes … They’re Everywhere

June 24, 2011

One book Sophie enjoys reading each night is a compilation of classic nursery rhymes. Reading these rhymes has been an eye-opening experience. For one, I never before realized what a bad parent Old Mother Hubbard really was (giving her kids broth without bread before whipping them!).

But aside from my need to censor a few of Mother Goose’s rhymes, what I found fascinating was how many components of these stories exist in modern pop culture songs and literature.

Let’s start with Humpty Dumpty and the famous line:

All the king’s horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty together again.

As I read these words now, I can’t help but think of Robert Penn Warren’s famous political novel, All the King’s Men.

And if you’re a Mary Chapin Carpenter fan (yes, that would be me), you’ll recall hearing that same line in the song Closer and Closer Apart (The Calling album):

And now all the king’s horses and all the king’s men wait for their clarion call…

The last line of Mary Mary Quite Contrary reads:

With silver bells and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row.

Interestingly enough, The Eagles use those words – “Pretty Maids All in a Row” – as the title of one of their songs (When Hell Freezes Over album).

And if you thought Cormac McCarthy’s Western novel title, “All the Pretty Horses,” sounded familiar, that’s because it’s the title of – that’s right – the nursery rhyme, All the Pretty Horses.

Now just when I thought nursery rhymes and Mother Goose have been inspiring art for years, I stumbled upon my PBS Parents Newsletter with a story entitled, “The Surprising Meaning and Benefits of Nursery Rhymes.” I was intrigued, especially considering this post was nearly complete.

I’m not going to summarize the entire article since I highly recommend reading it yourself. But what I found fascinating in this article is that many scholars believe those nursery rhymes were not written for children. In fact they were political and societal commentaries written in a “civilized manner” in rhyme and song.

Humpty Dumpty may be telling the story of the 1648 Siege of Colchester during the English Civil War, when the king’s army set up a powerful cannon that broke into pieces.

And Ring Around the Rosy may have been a reference to the plague (the “ring around the rosy” may be the swollen cysts symptoms of the sick, and the “we all fall down” refrain a reference to death.) Freaky, I know!

So now we see nursery rhymes have truly come full circle. They were verses that were inspired by actual events. And those writings eventually inspired so many other pieces of art, song and literature. Talk about rhyme and reason!

I do have to wonder though if Mother Goose receives royalty payments. That would be one well-paid bird!

Who knew this egg would inspire so much?

23 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2011 3:09 am

    This is such a great post, Leah! I love thinking about the origins of words within other writings, and I’ll often think about this while reading literature or even a quote — or these days listening to music. Like music covers, remixes, and samples — so interesting hearing all the old music in the new music my kids listen to! I loved reading this, and am definitely going over to read the NPR article. (p.s. I’m with you, some of the old poems/folk&fairy tales have creepy origins!)

    • June 26, 2011 7:47 pm

      Thanks, Julia. It’s funny how you see so many of these references everywhere, like you said, in your kids song lyrics. Let me know what you thought of the PBS article.

  2. June 24, 2011 6:06 am

    I knew what Ring Around the Rosy was about, but not Humpty Dumpty. It’s amazing how violent, but relevant some of the nursery rhymes and fairy tales are….

    A real thoughtful post…thanks!

    • June 26, 2011 7:48 pm

      Thanks, Ann. Not many people knew about the Humpty Dumpty story. The article talks about a few other examples as well.

  3. June 24, 2011 6:54 am

    I remember being blown away when I first heard about the supposed real meaning of Ring around the Rosy. So morbid! I hadn’t heard about the Humpty Dumpty reference. Can’t anything just be sweet and innocent?! 🙂

    • June 26, 2011 7:48 pm

      Apparently not! I hate to think about the origins of Jack and Jill!

  4. June 24, 2011 7:37 am

    I never heard the source of Humpty Dumpty before, Leah. That’s interesting. (Love English history.)

    • June 26, 2011 7:49 pm

      Fascinating, isn’t it? I had never hear of Ring Around the Rosy before. I love learning new things like that.

  5. June 24, 2011 7:41 am

    Nursery rhymes as history lessons. Who knew? And now that you’ve pointed out a few lines that have been borrowed for songs and book titles, I bet I’ll start seeing them everywhere. Thanks for sharing the article!

    • June 26, 2011 7:49 pm

      Isn’t that the truth? You’ll be noticing it constantly. Let me know if you find others.

  6. June 24, 2011 10:06 am

    Fun to read the origin. Like some of the others, I had no idea where Humpty Dumpty came from. It is sometimes strange to think how we randomly recite things not knowing what is the actual meaning behind it. Great post!

    • June 26, 2011 7:50 pm

      Thanks, Annie. Who knew about Humpty Dumpty, right? We all thought it was about an egg!

  7. June 24, 2011 10:31 am

    Leah, you are so right. My grandma used to sing to me old Russian and Yiddish folk songs and she use to tell me old Russian folk stories. Back then I could not understand how current all her stories are, only becoming a mother myself and telling the same stories and singing the same songs to my kids made me realize what you just described in your post.
    Thank you for bringing beautiful memories back to me and thank you for pointing out the obvious!

    • June 26, 2011 7:50 pm

      You’re welcome and thanks for your comment. I love the Yiddish folk tales too. That could be another post.

  8. June 24, 2011 11:44 am

    Interesting stuff! So many of these ‘origin stories’ seem to pop up as we age, don’t they? Gives a deeper hue to our every day…:) Thanks, Leah!

    • June 26, 2011 7:51 pm

      So true! The stories seem completely different than when we were kids.

  9. June 24, 2011 5:28 pm

    Leah, I never thought of how much influence nursery rhymes could have in things all the way from history to music. Thanks for sharing this new perspective with us and making us all that much wiser! 🙂

    • June 26, 2011 7:51 pm

      You’re welcome. Just wait … you’ll now hear the rhymes in so many songs and literature now.

  10. June 25, 2011 4:53 pm

    Loving all those connections! As far as “censoring” goes, I actually found a wonderful “Nursery Tales” book (Hansel & Gretel, Goldilocks, Three Pigs, Gingerbread Man, etc.) by Mary Engelbreit that “adjusts” the endings just a little to make them more toddler-friendly.

    • June 26, 2011 7:52 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion. I’m going to check that out for Sophie. Some of the original stories are so morbid – Hansel & Gretel and Gingerbread Man. Should’ve known Mary Engelbreit would make them better. Love her!

  11. June 26, 2011 7:32 pm

    I love, love, love the origins of expressions and in this case nursery rhymes. Thank you for this peek into our history, which weaves into our culture in ways we are not conscious of!

    • June 26, 2011 7:53 pm

      Thanks, Kim! Isn’t it crazy how it really is a full circle? I love that I stumbled upon the PBS article that talked about the origins before I finished writing this piece. It really brings it all together.

  12. June 27, 2011 7:17 am

    This is fascinating, Leah. Thanks for sharing. As they say, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” so the fact that these themes/stories tend to be repeated and come full circle is to be expected (I suppose) – but SO interesting.

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