Nursery rhymes. Like ice cream and constipation, they’re pretty much a staple of childhood.
Most of us are familiar with the more popular ones, and can probably sing or recite several by heart. But have you ever taken a moment to consider their meaning?
“Mother Goose was on crack,” I announced to my mom, looking up from Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose, which I’d been reading to Lil’ Bit.
Elaborately illustrated by Scott Gustafson, it was a beautiful book, with the cover image depicting a sweet-faced, rosy-cheeked grandmotherly type flying through the air on a grand white goose with two happy children in tow.
But the image belied some of the dark prose on the pages inside. Why had I never noticed how deranged Mother Goose was?
“Yeah, well, look at Dr. Seuss,” Mom replied. Ever the teacher, she then added, “The rhythm of the words will help develop her memory and vocabulary, regardless of their meaning.” And research suggests she’s right.
Dubious, I stared down at the little lump of baby resting in my lap. At less than a week old, she seemed thoroughly indifferent to my attempts to read to her. But how much of the bizarre content was actually seeping into that little brain? Had I already begun the process of scarring her for life?
To be fair, I really shouldn’t single out Mother Goose, crazy old crone that she was. After all, nursery rhymes as a whole are not exactly the by-product of an entirely lucid thought process, regardless of who penned them.
Consider, for instance, a recent conversation I had with Jim as he sat with Lil’ Bit, who was engrossed in a HooplaKidz video of This Old Man on YouTube:
“This old man is kind of creepy,” I noticed, looking over their shoulders at the rudimentary animation.
“The whole song is kind of creepy,” Jim replied.
“Well, yeah,” said Jim, sounding surprised as he twisted to look at me. “He’s an old man who plays knick-knack on a little girl’s thumb. And knee. And spine!”
So, this old man was a pedophile. Who then went rolling home after he’d finished playing knick-knack all over some poor, innocent little girl. Was he also a drunk? He was, I decided. This old man was a dirty, drunk perv.
And then there’s Ring Around the Rosy – that happy little ditty often sung by cute little girls as they hold hands and skip in a circle? Yeah, it’s all about the bubonic plague.
“Okay, let’s sing the song about death!” Hubs cheerfully announced to Lil’ Bit after I read him its origins.
And let’s not forget the poor old man with the concussion. You know…
It’s raining, it’s pouring,
The old man is snoring,
Got out of bed and bumped his head,
And couldn’t get up in the morning!
Someone should’ve probably gotten the poor guy to a doctor, but instead they penned a rather mocking nursery rhyme about him. Nice.
But when it comes to overall WTF-ness, Mother Goose reigns supreme. Witness…
Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over
Kids, don’t try this at home.
Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.
Some might consider this spousal abuse.
Yankee Doodle came to town,
Riding on a pony.
He stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.
What? Why? Why on earth would he call a feather ‘macaroni?’ Was he high?
There was an old woman
Who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children
She didn’t know what to do.
Um, I know something she could do: Use a condom. That’s right – tell Mr. Shoe to slap on a patch the next time he wants to take ol’ one-eye to the optometrist.
She gave them some broth
Without any bread.
She whipped them all soundly
And sent them to bed.
Look, we’ve all been there. Parenthood is tough. But this? Just ain’t right.
Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub.
And who do you think they be?
Well, they’re three men hanging out in a tub together, so I think they be gay.
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick maker,
Turn ‘em out, knaves all three!
No, not knaves! Gays! And we should not turn them out. We should embrace them with tolerance and understanding. Love is love, you homophobic bitch!
And finally, there’s that most well-known of lullabies:
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.
Yikes. How is this is supposed to soothe children to sleep? And why did someone stick a cradle full of baby at the top of a tree in the first place?
Removing my tongue from my cheek for a moment, I admit I’m really not offended by Mother Goose. And I understand that she’s an imaginary author of murky origins and not some sort of Elizabethan-age Mommie Dearest.
Besides, not all of her tales are completely deranged. Many are only slightly unhinged. Some are even sweet.
What’s more, Lil’ Bit loves them. Humpty Dumpty is her favorite. She seems to like the look of surprised fear on his face as he takes his great fall. Because that’s not at all warped.
But when she smiles up at me as I sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, or pantomimes the motions to the Itsy Bitsy Spider, I melt a little. And take heart that maybe nursery rhymes aren’t scarring her for life after all.
Have you ever stopped to consider the meaning of your favorite nursery rhymes?