On Sunday evening, my daughter Alex sat down next to me in my study with Neil Gaiman’s “M Is For Magic” in her hands. Apparently, a lot of nursery rhymes were referenced in the short stories and, not being familiar with many of them, she decided it was more convenient to ask me rather than turn on her MacBook, go online and search the web for answers.
The particular nursery rhyme that Alex was asking me about was “Sing A Song of Sixpence.” This is the version I used to sing as a child, at home as well as in school:
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes;
Along came a blackbird
And snipped off her nose.
The image of live blackbirds baked into a pie did not sound silly to me as a child (it seemed hilarious though) but, later, I thought about it and wondered how in Mother Goose’s name could birds stay alive for at least half an hour in an oven hot enough to bake a pie crust? Imagine my surprise when I found out that baking live birds into a pie was a common amusement in the 16th century and an Italian cookbook even has a recipe for it.
I grew up with nursery rhymes and a Mother Goose book dominated a huge part of my early childhood but it wasn’t a legacy that I handed down to my children. I enjoyed the catchy ditties, all right, but by the time I became a mother, I had very serious doubts about how age-proper they were. It’s different for Alex who is getting acquainted with nursery rhymes as a teenager. She can search for explanations and nuances and not be a victim of innocent acceptance.
But me? Oh, I loved the lullabies from my childhood. Brahms, naturally. Not the Celine Dion version, of course, but the old one that contained words I couldn’t even pronounce:
Lullaby, and good night,
With pink roses bedight,
With lilies o’erspread,
Is my baby’s sweet head.
Lay you down now, and rest,
May your slumber be blessed!
Lay you down now, and rest,
May thy slumber be blessed!
Bedight? O’erspread? Would a Filipino toddler know? Heck, I’m sure even my parents didn’t know. But Brahms wasn’t the only lullaby I was familiar with. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I also loved the traditional “Rock-A-Bye, Baby” lullaby. There are many variants to the lyrics but this is the one I grew up with:
Rock-a-bye, baby, on the treetop
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
Heck, if that’s not gory, I don’t know how else to describe it. Why anyone would think it fitting to sing to a child, I have no idea.
The history of the verse and the theories behind it are interesting though. Some say it is based on Lillibullero, which put a satirical Irish ballad into music. Lillibullero is about the Williamite War in Ireland. In 1688, William II of England (also of Scotland and Ireland) was overthrown by his daughter and her husband William of Orange. The event came to be known as the Glorious Revolution. William tried to regain his three thrones and the opening salvo in this attempt became what is known as the Williamite War in Ireland.
In The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (available at Questia for a minimal subscription fee), authors Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard theorize that the baby is William II’s child (supposedly a changeling brought in to provide an heir to the House of Stuart), the cradle is the House of Stuart and the wind is the wind of political change.
In that context, one can understand the violent nature of Rock-A-Bye, Baby. But is it something to be sung to children who will grow up with an image of a baby falling off a tree? Strange, to say the least. I can’t imagine either a mother singing the lullaby to her baby then follow it up with an explanation of the historical event on which it was supposedly based. You know, for proper context.
That I grew up with Mother Goose and nursery rhymes is something I attribute to the generation that my parents belong to. My parents grew up during the post-war era, American-style public school education and all. I also had an aunt, my father’s eldest sister, who migrated to Canada when I was a baby and she sent home books and long playing records that she thought my brother and I would enjoy, including an album of lullabies and Mary Poppins.
Lucky for me, I also grew up with a grandmother next door who sang songs like Dandansoy to me. Not with the original Visayan lyrics but the English translation. Where she learned that from, I never bothered to ask. I can’t remember the words anymore but I still feel the soothing melody well to this day.