Nursery rhymes you'll never sing again

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Me, singing:
There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.
I don't know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she'll die.

Me, thinking:
Really? A children's song about a woman's possible choking death? I can't have that right.

Little Man absolutely hates getting his diaper changed and isn't so fond of getting dressed either, but when I sing, he stops crying right away. (I'm not a good singer, so rest assured it has nothing to do with my voice. He just loves music!)

So I started digging nursery rhymes out of the depths of my brain during diaper changes, and presto! No more tears. Except I couldn't remember most of the words. Like when I tried to sing the old lady and fly song--was I remembering that correctly? Was it really about a woman dying? Seemed too morbid to be true.

Goo.gle to the rescue, and holy hell. The song actually is about a woman dying! Here's a link to the full lyrics. It's a long song that ends with the terrible lines:
"There was an old lady who swallowed a horse. She's dead--of course."
What the what?? This is totally morbid! And then I started looking up lyrics to others.
And folks, there are a lot of really ridiculous nursery rhymes out there.

Take the sweet song of Clementine. It's usually belted out by children with a country twang Loretta Lynn would envy--

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"Oh my darlin'.
Oh my darlin'.
Oh my darlin' Clementine!"

Well, that song is about beautiful little Clementine, who drowns to death, and her miner father's mourning and eventual suicide. And then the song goes on to tell how her dead body fertilizes roses and that the man who loved Clementine wasn't into necrophilia, and finally, the moral of the story--if the miner father knew artificial respiration, he could have saved her and avoided all this tragedy.

Seriously! Read for yourself HERE.

Turns out that many of these really old nursery rhymes are are from the way back olden days and have quite a meaning to them. They often tell of events in history, such as "Ring Around the Rosy" which suggested to be a recanting of the bubonic plague! (However, snopes.com calls that theory bunk, and suggests the song refers to the Protestant's religious ban on dancing in the 19th century.)

Often they are about free speech or political satire at a time when such commentary would mean execution.  "Three Blind Mice" is about devout Catholic, Queen Mary I, who had three Protestant noblemen burnt at the stake.

Some are less obvious. "Jack and Jill" is about King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who fell from power and were both beheaded in 1783.

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And finally, some rhymes are actually (gasp) educational such as "Baa Baa Black Sheep" which recounts the importance of wool in the middle ages. The teaching of moral lessons is also used in rhymes, such as in "Little Bo Peep", reminding children about the consequences of being irresponsible. I guess the Clementine song could fit into this category. The moral of the story being, don't drown or you'll end up fertilizing flowers.

This whole thing is quite fascinating to me. Who knew that those innocent little ditties we sang as children weren't quite so innocent. Of course, I still don't know the words to most of them, so I guess if I make up my own, they might be less gruesome than the real thing.

If you want to know more, check out these fantastic sites:

Nursery Rhymes--Lyrics, origins and history
The Hidden History of Nursery Rhymes
24 Terrifying, Thoughtful and Absurd Nursery Rhymes
Lullaby Lyrics-A primer


  1. Haha, this is a great post! My family's favorite songs as kids were "I know an Old Lady" and another morbid one - "I'm being swallowed by a boa constrictor."

  2. WHOA. i never knew that about clementine! freaky!!! i always felt similarly about some fairytales...the little matchgirl and the original little mermaid always creeped me out. eeek...

  3. the best thing about your blog (besides getting a glimpse of what it going on in your world, of course) is that I always learn something fun that is well researched. I agree about "old lady" - morbid indeed. And some fairytales - good golly. I refuse to read "Snow White" to the kids anymore because I really didn't want to explain to them that a woman could hate her daughter that much.

    But keep singing! Glad you found something that works!!

  4. Singing is so good for bonding, I suck at it but our guy loves it too.

    Crazy about these 'children's songs' eh? It blows me away too, although I love learning the history of them now that I can understand them. I've noticed a lot of toys and books change the lyrics.

  5. LOL! This is crazy. I always thought the lines in, "Rock a Bye Baby" were morbid. "Down will come baby, cradle and all!" ;)

  6. OH...Michael loves to be sung to. That was the way to stop his crying too. I also think it helped in his language, because he could listen to the cadance of the English language.
    My favorite lyric:
    In "she'll be coming around the mountain when she comes"......One of the verses is, "She'll have to sleep with Grandma when she comes".....WTF??? what's so bad about that? I have to shake my head whenever I'm belting it out while driving to the CD of kids' songs that stays in the player at all times.
    MIchelle and Stefan in the 'ol Cottage Grove

  7. I can assure you that kids LOVE made up songs;the sillier the better. Easy to do. For example, "Stomp! Stomp! Tap.Tap go my feet. Stinky. Stinky. Sad for me." Exaggerate your words, add movements, make funny faces or use a fuuny voice, and rhyming helps. I guarantee he'll love it. Worked for my childcare class and works still for my kids. You can make up your own tune or chamge the words to one you know. Have you sung him Wheels on the Bus? It is not morbid and provides many lyrics.

  8. It's true about all these kid's songs being creepy, my friends and I sometimes don't have anything to talk about so we talk about how young children will grow up listening to these songs I feel bad for them - they don't know what they're saying or listening to.


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