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Origins: Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa! Baaaaa!

This post is part of a series on banned and challenged books marking the ALAs Banned Books Week 2011.

Baa Baa Black Sheep
Have you any wool?
Yes Sir, yes Sir
Three bags full;
One for the master
And one for the dame
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

There’s only one nursery rhyme that I could tackle for Banned Books Week: Baa Baa Black Sheep. Inoccuous enough, the rhyme has nevertheless been the subject of controversy.

The rhyme was printed in Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744 as follows:

Bah, Bah a black Sheep,
Have you any Wool?
Yes merry have I,
Three Bags full,
One for my master,
One for my Dame,
One for the little Boy
That lives down the lane.

In 1765s Mother Goose’s Melody, the last couplet is printed as ‘and none for the little boy that cries in the lane’. When people try to explain the rhyme, this is generally ther version they refer to.

Legend has it that Baa Baa Black Sheep explains the tax on wool introduced in 1275, the Great Custom. The tax demanded that six shillings and eight pence, around a third the value, be paid on each sack of wool. Significant numbers of the weathly wool merchants were monestaries, so for each every three sacks produced, one went to the King in taxes (the master), two went to the church (the dame) and nothing went to the poor shepherding monk.

A black sheep in the flock was useless in terms of wool production as it was impossible to dye his fleece. It is likely that this is what gives us the term ‘the black sheep of the family’.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the story of Baa Baa Black Sheep being attacked as racist by Islington Council surfaced over and over again, despite being a proven fabrication.

In 2006 the Times reported that a Oxfordshire children were being taught to sing the lyric as ‘baa baa rainbow sheep’. While the charity running the nursery, PACT, inisted that the change was made on educational grounds and not motivated by ‘racial concerns’ parents were reportedly ‘astonished’. Nevertheless the trend continues, and in February 2011 a nursery school in Queensland, Australia had introduced the rainbow sheep to the rhyme.

The grounds for changing the rhyme for educational purposes are perfectly sensible; nursery cycle through the colours so the sheep is black, white, red and green by turns and by this aid their teaching of the colours.

That the rhyme has been amended because of racial stereotyping is post facto reasoning applied by the Daily Mail reading PC-gone-mad crowd. It is one of many examples of an urban legend that has become ‘common sense’. Those who insist the descriptor ‘black’ is removed from Baa Baa Black Sheep on the grounds that it is racist often cite the rhymes origins in slavery – supposing that slaves would be asked to collect wool. This is, of course, apocryphal. Firstly, Britain in the 1700s was only involved in the trading of slaves, rather than the working of them and secondly, wool was not one of the products that slaves worked with.


4 responses »

  1. I happen to know from my sister that in South Australia (where they have a scheme to give out free books to parents of newborns), she had to search the pile for the “older” edition of the nursery rhyme book that had black sheep instead of rainbow sheep.

  2. I am that sister in South Australia and yes it was hard to find the original. However I have found that on attending the ‘baby sessions’ at my local library they sing baa baa black sheep. So my thoughts are that most people have given up on the change to rainbow sheep. Probably due to the fact that its harder to explain to my child that there are not ‘rainbow’ sheep.

    • That’s interesting, thank you. I imagine it is rather confusing for little ones. As far as I know here in the UK there’s no uniformity – I’ve heard both versions. I certainly prefer the original though.


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