Lullabies and Nursery Rhymes: Stuff that Nightmares are Made of?

Our ancestors had a strange sense of humour when it came to songs they created for their young.  I grew up singing and hearing: “Rockabye Baby,” ”Ring Around the Rosy,” and reciting “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary,” innocent to the possible literal interpretation of the words: falling from a branch to your death, dying of the plague, or the horror of a woman being beheaded.  I fell asleep into the peaceful ululation of my mother’s voice- only later did I realize the terror that my parents might be subjecting me to in my dreams.

“Rockabye Baby,” is probably the number one lullaby for babies and children.  Printed by John Newbery in 1765, the song itself is about the horror of a baby falling from a tree.  Then consider “My Baby Bumblebee” lyrics: a child crushing a baby bumblebee in its hands, and in some versions licking it off! We obviously have some cultural issues.

  Who hasn’t read the Mother Goose version of “The Three Blind Mice,” in which a woman cuts the tails off three optically challenged rodents? What about the fertile old lady who live in foot apparel, and beats her many children? Possibly our arachnophobic culture is the result of “Little Miss Muffet.”

I was pushed over the edge two days ago when I found out that we (Being ME, English speaking Canadian from Ontario) were not the only ones.  There is a larger international conspiracy to scare children through lullabies and nursery rhymes.

Yesterday, in an attempt to help teach my little girl French, we went through a Youtube version of “Alouette, Gentile Alouette.” The clip included the English lyrics with the French song. It only took a few lines before I learned my mistake: it was about plucking a bird!

Alouette, gentille Alouette

Lark, nice lark

Alouette, je te plumerai

Lark, I shall pluck you

Je te plumerai la tête

I shall pluck your head

(Je te plumerai la tête)

(I shall pluck your head)

Why do we make such gruesome lullabies to sing to our children?

John Belleden Ker, who wrote in the early nineteenth century, believed that many English nursery rhymes where written in ‘Low Saxon’ and an example of anti-clericalism of the time in which they were created. In the 1930, Katherine Elwes published a book that claimed many of these nursery rhymes could be traced to historical events in history.  It was Elwes who claimed “Ring Around the Rosy,” was based on the plague.

Armed with this new interpretation, our society attempted to cleanse the nursery rhymes of their ‘ick.’ New interpretations were created that whitewashed the gruesomeness of the rhymes of the past two centuries.

This reminds me of James Garner’s, “Politically Correct: The Ultimate Storybook.”  While based on longer fairy stories, Garner takes a satirical view at the need for political correctness. For example, Little Red Riding Hood is taking, “a basket of fresh fruit and mineral water to her grandmother’s house-not because this was womyn’s work, mind you, but because the deed was generous and helped engender a feeling of community.” (15)

In contrast, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, criticized this revision of these nursery rhymes on the grounds that the older more gruesome ones helped children and adults deal imaginatively with danger and violence.

For my own part, I believe that the rhymes that our ancestors sang and created where born of a different time than ours.  One did eat lark, one was likely to die young, and there were possibly more threats to survival than in our modern age. Should we change them? No. They are part of our cultural heritage.  They should open the dialogue for communication about history when a child is old enough to understand.

We should continue to add our own cultural footprint to the storehouse of lullabies and nursery rhymes that communicates something about our own time.  It might read something like,” poor little Joan, lost her cell phone,” or “poor little Dext, he couldn’t text.” OK, pretty bad, I know.  I’ll leave you to make up your own.  I’ll keep reading the classics to Morgan- even with all of their  passionate, gruesome intensity.

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1 Response to Lullabies and Nursery Rhymes: Stuff that Nightmares are Made of?

  1. thistwilightgarden says:

    Great use of humour and some very valid points. Your posts are a pleasure to read and very informative….I look forward to your next post

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