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.
The first printed version of this rhyme appears in Mother Goose’s Melody (1765) as follows:
On the tree top,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
Down tumbles baby,
Cradle and all.
The rhyme appears in 1916 The Real Mother Goose as:
Rock-a-bye, baby, thy cradle is green;
Father’s a nobleman, mother’s a queen;
And Betty’s a lady, and wears a gold ring;
And Johnny’s a drummer, and drums for the king.
The first couplet of which is also seen as early as 1805, suggesting that both versions have existed alongside each other for some time.
A similar rhyme appears in German, beginning
Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf,
Der Vater hüt die Schaf,
Die Mutter schüttelts Bäumelein,
Da fällt herab ein Träumelein.
Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf!
As to the origins (and the real age) of the rhyme, we are clueless. One theory suggests that the narrative was written by a Pilgrim on the Mayflower and refers to a Native American practice of placing a baby in a birch cradle suspended from a tree, though the timing of the rhymes publication in the UK (and not the US) does not support this theory.
Another theory supposes the baby to be the son of King James II & VII who (legend has it) was a changeling, smuggled into the laying-in chamber in order to provide an heir for the King. symbolically, the cradle represents the royal house of Stuart and the blowing wind the threat of Protestant rebellion. This theory is supported by a footnote appearing with the first printed version: This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last. But, as the Opie’s put it, ‘imaginations may have been stretched to give the rhyme significance’.
Further supporting this theory is the tune to which the words are generally sung, Purcell’s Lillibullero (c, 1689), is a political satire of events in Ireland, 1689, when James IIs Lord Deputy of Ireland, Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, filled the army with Catholics, both alienating Protestants and concerning them that they might see a massacre like that in 1641.
In truth, though, we neither know how old the rhyme is or to what it refers – even if it refers to anything at all. As a lullaby it is widely known in the US and the UK and it is likely to have an oral history that pre-dates its first printing significantly, but its genesis remains a mystery.