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Origins: Sing a Song of Sixpence

“Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie…”

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;
Now wasn’t that a dainty dish
To put 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,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ describes a domesticity foreign to most of us.  The first and second stanzas refer to a show stopping dish described in The Accomplisht Cook, published in 1671.

 … where lifting first the lid off one pie, out skips some Frogs, which makes the Ladies to skip and shreek; next after the other Pie, whence comes out the Birds; who by a natural instinct flying at the light, will put out the Candles; so that what with the flying Birds, and skipping Frogs, the one above, the other beneath, will cause much delight and pleasure to the whole company.

Such dishes were designed to display the wealth of those whose table they graced, so it’s not surprising that the King has taken to his counting house – a place where business transactions would take place, essentially a home office – to luxuriate in his wealth. In nursery rhymes royal families often represent ‘proper’ gender hierarchies and relations, and so it is here. The King is patriarch  auditing the means of his control, the Queen in her parlour is social and the maid works for her keep.

The maid of the rhyme is an enigma. ‘Maid’ could refer to a servant, as her activity suggests, or to her unmarried state. And why is she getting her nose pecked off? Could it be a punishment? In Christianity the blackbird is a symbol of damnation and in centuries passed a missing nose was a sure sign of untreated syphilis – is our maid being punished for sexual indiscretions?

A verse closely resembling the rhyme we know today appeared in the oldest book of nursery rhymes Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (vol. II, pub. 1744) to have survived to the present day. The lyric is identical save the first verse:

Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
Bak’d in a Pye.

But it is in Gamer Gurton’s Garland, from around 1784 that we first find the full four verses that we know today. The rhyme appears in all the usual publications in some form or another; Tom Tit’s Song Book, Mother Goose’s Quarto, and The Nursery Rhymes of England (and other less well-known tomes) each reproduce a version, with some adding a ‘happy ending’ in additional stanzas such as this that appears in 1866:

They sent for the King’s doctor, who sewed it on again,
He sewed it on so neatly the seam was never seen;
And the Jackdaw for his naughtiness, deservedly was slain.

Though this tactic appears unsuccessful, it did not stop the BBC having a go on Listen with Mother in 1950:

They made such a commotion that little Jenny wren
Flew down into the garden and put it back again.

It’s possible that Shakespeare references the rhyme in Twelfth Night (Come, there is a sixpence for you; let’s have a song [II.iii]), which dates the verse further. ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ is likely to pre-date its first known publication significantly.

As to the origins of this song, competing theories exist. Since the appearance of this spoof page, sometime between 1995 and 2000, the belief that the rhyme is a coded recruitment song for pirates has gained momentum. The theory falls at the first hurdle  – how would the potential recruits understand the coded message before they’d got the job and learned the code?

The most widely accepted theory concerns, as so many nursery rhyme origin tales do, Henry VIII; Henry counts his money following the sizeable cash injection dissolving the monasteries provided, his Queen, Catherine of Aragon and the maid his mistress and soon to be replacement spouse Anne Boleyn.

This theory suggests that sensitive documents – in this case property deeds – were transported about the country inside pies before being gifted to the king by churchmen (blackbirds) hoping for a cushy job in government (or the newly formed Church of England). When Anne Boleyn failed to produce an heir the same blackbirds concocted a plot accusing her of adultery and incest, and had her nose removed by virtue of the fact that it was attached to her head, which they chopped off.

If all that sounds a little far-fetched, well, it is. It’s easy to read far too much into verses designed to be nonsense, and I rather like my syphilis theory, but the Opie’s suggestion that the rhyme is merely ‘a description of a familiar entertainment’ (p. 471) is, alas, most probable.


One response »

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