Have you ever wondered where some of our nursery rhymes came from, or what they really mean? Some of them seem to be about pure nonsense, but there is more to them than meets the eye. After all, “nursery rhymes are full of sex, death, and cruelty” (xv). The author makes a point that this is “not meant to be a scholarly exercise” (187), it’s more like a “Hey, did you know that…?”
Like any good conspiracy artist, Roberts can find meaning anywhere, and sometimes more than one meaning. “Higgledy Piggledy my black hen,” for example, could possibly be about a prostitute, a spy, a female spy, a gay spy, a beautiful black woman, a woman with black hair, or anything else you could possibly try to fit in there. But it could also just be about a chicken.
Roberts explains how Victorians altered their view of childhood. They started to try to shield children from “adult sights” where they had not really worried about it before. Rhymes were written out, illustrated, and sanitized in attempt to make them appropriate for children. They were deliberately rewritten instead of accidentally mistranslated. There was finally a difference between adult and children’s entertainment.
This is basically a big entertaining history lesson. Some of these rhymes came about (or gained new meaning) during the nineteenth century, where the political environment led to more open songs and rhymes – they did not have to be as clever to hide their meaning from those not in the know. Some rhymes came earlier, but most of the standards come from the time of the Tudors through the Stuarts. And going through these rhymes, according to Roberts everything leads back to politics. There is a lot of history, and a lot of Henry VIII, with some James’s and Charles’s thrown in for good measure. Some of the links make sense, but there are some that seem to be a bit of a stretch. With a few exceptions, everything is about politics!
One thing that is absolutely necessary for American audiences is the Glossary. Roberts uses a lot of terms than Americans are unfamiliar with, and rather than take them out, he just refers us to the back 13 pages with a handy dandy asterisk. (One of those is the concept of rhyming slang, which I still am not too sure on, so if anyone of the British persuasion would like to explain it to me, it would be greatly appreciated!)
Here are some thoughts I had while reading and some select quotes:
Little Jack Horner – “Treachery and greed pay off, but bribery is a bad idea.” Also, Roberts recommends seeing The Wicker Man. Yes, the one with Nicholas Cage.
London Bridge – the white spike on London Bridge is a throwback to the spike on the original bridge meant for the heads of traitors. Good to know.
Humpty Dumpty is a cannon, not an egg.
Sing a Song of Sixpence – baking things in pies was apparently a popular method of hiding things, like property deeds, from brigands and highwaymen.
Baa Baa Black Sheep – Roberts uses the word “plonking” here, and that’s awesome!
The Grand Old Duke of York is apparently “a sort of proto football chant used to taunt your enemy as a clueless military leader” (45). Roberts also laments the fact that the great seal of office was a stamp and not a marine mammal.
In the section on courting rhymes, we learn about the Welsh tradition of “bundling” (which was trying a premarital couple up in a sack overnight – if they were still on speaking terms in the morning, then the wedding was still on!); mermaid reproduction; and the many verses of Scarborough Fair with their crazy demands and metaphors.
Yankee Doodle – the “macaroni” is in reference to a group of fashionable youths in the early 1770’s.
Rock-A-Bye Baby – the tree could be referring to a family tree, rather than an actual one.
Little Boy Blue is about religion and/or politics.
Jack and Jill is NOT about politics! It could be about either booze and pills or the loss of virginity.
Pop Goes the Weasel could be referring to spinning, or spending and pawning.
See Saw Marjorie Daw has references to fairies in its older, raunchier version.
Overall, this gets a solid 4 stars. It was entertaining, and I learned some things!