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Tag Archives: Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book

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 snopes.com 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.

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Origins: Mary, Mary

Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (c. 1744) has the first printed version of ‘Mary, Mary’, as follows:

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
How does your Garden grow?
With Silver bells,
And Cockle Shells,
And so my Garden grows.

The final line of the verse went through a a number of permutations in the first half-century of publication:

Nancy Cook’s Pretty Song Book for all Little and Misses and Masters, c.1780, Sing cuckolds all on row.
Gamer Gurton’s Garland, 1784, Cowslips all arow.
Tom Thumb’s Song Book, 1788, With Lady bells all in a row.
Tom Tit’s Song Book for all Little Masters and Misses, c.1790, With Lady bells all in a row.
Infant Institutes, 1797, And cuckolds all in a row.

There are a number of competing theories as to the identity of contrary Mary.

Our Lady

According to Opie, Catholics view the rhyme as a lament for the persecution of the Catholic church and Protestants as a lament for the reinstatement of the Catholic church. This belief is predicated on the interpretation of the verse as a pen portrait of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where the ‘silver bells’ represent sanctus bells, the cockleshells Pilgrim badges and the ‘pretty maids’ nuns.

Bloody Mary

Mary Tudor (Mary I, 1516-1558) was a staunch Catholic. This interpretation of the rhyme suggests that Mary’s garden is her figurative personal graveyard, ever growing as it was filled with the bodies of Protestant dead.  The rhyme appears to be a celebration of Mary’s torturous ways: the sliver bells are said to represent thumbscrews; the cockleshells a (male) genital torture device which crushed the penis, and the maids a colloquial abbreviation of referring to either the Iron Maiden or Scottish Maiden, devices of torture and beheading respectively.

Mary, Queen of Scots.

In the case of Mary Stewart (Mary, Queen of Scots, 1542 – 1587) the pretty maids are said to refer to the Four Marys, her ladies-in-waiting. In this case, the silver bells and cockleshells are said to be decorations on the womens’ dresses.

Victorian publications including the rhyme – Kate Greenway’s 1881 offering Mother Goose, Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England (1842) and Rusher’s Poetic Trifles (1840) – in keeping with the Victorian tradition of outward prudence, inward pervery, bowdlerizes the mention of cuckoldry in some earlier versions, referring instead to flowers.

No evidence has been found that the rhyme pre-dates the eighteenth century, which makes any links to the Queens Mary spurious at best. It’s worth mentioning, though, that a ballad called ‘Cuckolds all a row’ was registered in 1637, which may have provided the basis for the rhyme.

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.