5 Nursery Rhymes and their Dark Origins

Nursery rhymes seems harmless at first. You sing it to kids, kids sing it for fun and everyone is happy. But the origins of some of these nursery rhymes are pretty disturbing. Here are 5 nursery rhymes that seemed harmless at first but when you know the backstory behind it, you’d think twice.

5. Rock-a-Bye, Baby

I remember when I was young, I liked this nursery rhyme. But as I grew older, I went back to this nursery rhyme and couldn’t believe the ending. Here’s the rhyme:

Rock-a-bye, baby,
On the tree top.

When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock.

When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,

And down will come baby,
Cradle and all

So even before we get behind the theory of the history of this rhyme, the ending is shocking as the baby went down with the cradle and all.

Imagine a cradle instead of a swing.

One interpretation of the rhyme says that it is about the son of King James II of England with Mary of Modena. They believed that the boy was not their son but a child who was switched in the birthing room and passed off as their own in order to ensure a Roman Catholic heir to the throne.

Then a revolution happened making the supposed changeling’s life to fall. But linking the rhyme to that seems a bit far fetched. Then there’s the possible American roots of a young pilgrim who observed the Native American mothers suspending cradles from tree branches.

So when the wind blew, the cradles would rock and the babies in them would sleep. So we know what could happen when the branches do break.

Another take on the rhyme involves the whole birthing situation. Rather than death for the baby at the end of the rhyme it is more about life. In this theory, the tree is the mother, the wind is her contractions, the bough is when her water broke and the cradle and all is the placenta.

Interesting twist to make the death ridden rhyme into a rhyme about life.