One of our earliest introduction to song and music as a child are nursery rhymes. These little ditties are a fun way to introduce children to rhyme and singing and often have accompanying movements to help with coordination. Nursery rhymes have their roots in culture and ‘highlight the rhythmic nature of the child’s particular language’ (Gerken) and ‘reflect the history and customs of the people’ (Sorensen). The 18th Century is the ‘golden age’ of nursery rhymes and is when the canon of classics we still use today emerged (BBC). However, it is likely that nursery rhymes have their roots in earlier times, as there is no human culture that has not invented rhyming songs for its children.
Young children recite nursery rhymes without questioning the meaning behind them. But as we grow the interesting and often dark meaning of these rhymes becomes clearer. Popular nursery rhymes cover topics such as plagues, executions, taxes and religious persecutions - not traditional ‘family friendly' topics.
Many nursery rhymes have different interpretations and their origins are disputed. Ring a Ring O’ Roses is said to be about the Great Plague, with sneezing (Atishoo! Atishoo!) being seen as a sure sign you were about to die of plague (We all fall down). Oranges and Lemons is a rhyme that follows as condemned man on route to his execution (Here comes a chopper, to chop off your head). Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary has been said to possibly be about Bloody Mary, with her "garden" being an allusion to the graveyards filling with Protestant bodies and "silver bells" and "cockleshells" being instruments of torture (BBC). In Sing a Song of Sixpence the King is often believed to be Henry VIII, with the Queen eating bread and honey to be Catherine of Aragon. Whilst Anne Boleyn is the maid whose nose is pecked off by a blackbird, alluding to her execution (Interesting Literature). And Humpty Dumpty (often depicted as an egg in children's books) has been interpreted as either a siege cannon during the English civil war (Historic UK) or as a story about Richard III’s brutal death at the Battle of Bosworth (The Vintage News).
Nursery rhymes weren't created solely as a tool for education and entertainment for children. "Nursery rhymes are part of long-standing traditions of parody and popular political resistance to high culture and royalty" (BBC). In times where a caricature of royalty or politicians could sentence you to death, nursery rhymes were a way to smuggle coded or thinly veiled messages in the guise of children's entertainment. In illiterate societies, the catchy songs helped people remember the stories and pass them on through generations - a triumph of the power of oral history (BBC).
A lot of children's literature has a dark origin and over time fairy tales have been edited to be more child-friendly. The original versions of fairy tales were often dark and featured 'painful punishments, sadistic parents and children being devoured by wild beasts’ (History Hit). However, with pantomimes, updated storybooks and Disney film adaptations, many of the darker elements of these stories have been removed. And although some nursery rhymes have been edited, either by individual parents or organisations to become more child friendly, most of them have still retained their original lyrics and have their characters face an unfortunate ending:
Three Blind Mice They all ran after the farmer’s wife, who cut off their tails with a carving knife. Ladybird Ladybird Your house is on fire and your children are gone It’s Raining, It’s Pouring He went to bed and bumped his head and didn't get up in the morning Oranges and Lemons And here comes a chopper to chop off your head
There are also many instances in popular culture where the singing of nursery rhymes has been used for horror. Leaning on their dark content and rhyme it is often sung by a child or horror character to unnerve the audience. The most famous occurrence of this is in ‘Nightmare on Elm Street”. In this film the nightmarish Freddy Krueger sings the nursery rhyme One, two buckle my shoe editing lyrics to include "One, two, Freddy's coming for you." Other examples of films using traditional or original nursery rhymes for a creepy effect include Doctor Who, Criminal Minds, The Shining, The Ring, Hocus Pocus and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV Tropes).
The history of nursery rhymes is fascinating, and it is wonderful that so many of these old traditional songs are still taught today but also that new nursery rhymes are being composed. With the popularity of new songs such as Baby Shark and shows like Cocomelon penning new songs for children, the repertoire keeps growing. It will be very interesting to see how nursery rhymes continue to evolve and change with the changes to our society.