The Dark Side of Nursery Rhymes (Halloween 2023)

We probably have not given nursery rhymes much thought, since we just sang what we learnt, or what was taught to us through the generations.

Did you know that some of the nursery rhymes that we know have creepy, and sometimes sinister backstories? This Halloween, let us find out more about the dark side of nursery rhymes! Read on if you dare!

Enjoy this hauntingly beautiful, and spooky rendition of Rock-a-bye Baby by Willow Stephens as you dive into the darkness.



What are nursery rhymes?

Seth Lerer, dean of arts and humanities at the University of California in San Diego explains that nursery rhymes are a “triumph of the power of oral history”, and they are “part of long-standing traditions of parody and a popular political resistance to high culture and royalty”, in that nursery rhymes (in the guise of children’s entertainment) were a greatly effective way to smuggle coded messages. The catchy sing-song melodies of these nursery rhymes that subtly harboured ‘unsavoury elements’ helped people remember the dark stories, and crucially, pass them on to the next generation.

The earliest nursery rhymes seems to date from the 14th Century, although it was only in the 18th Century did the canon of classics we hear today emerge and flourish. The first nursery rhyme collection, Tommy Thumb’s Song Book, was printed in around 1744. A century later, Edward Rimbault published the first nursery rhymes collection to include notated music.

Reflected in the very nature of nursery rhymes are its distinctive sing-song metre, tonality, and rhythm, that characterises ‘motherese’, a musical form of speech with babies. Music historian, and a specialist in early English popular music, Jeremy Barlow, says a nursery rhymes’ innocent tunes draw attention away from what is going on in the rhyme (for example, the drowned cat in Ding Dong Bell). An even more attractive feature is shorter rhymes with nonsense or repetitive words; these attract young children even without the tunes, because children like the sound and rhythm of the words. A tune enhances the attraction, and eventually, the words and the tune become inseparable.


Content credit:
The dark side of nursery rhymes by BBC Britain (2023)



The twisted backstories

Here are some of the origins of the nursery rhymes that we know, and probably still sing mindlessly:


Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full.
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane

King Edward I. imposed the medieval wool tax in the 13th Century. Under these new rules, one third of the cost of a sack of wool went to King Edward I., another third went to the church, and the last third went to the farmer. Black sheep were considered bad luck because their fleeces are unable to be dyed, and therefore were less lucrative for the farmer.


Ring Around The Rosie

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies.
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down

This nursery rhyme may have been about the 1665 Great Plague of London: the “rosie” being the malodorous rash that developed on the skin of the victims, the stench of which needed concealing with “a pocket full of posies”. The bubonic plague killed 15% of Britain’s population, hence “we all fall down” (dead).


Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush

Here we go ’round the mulberry bushThe mulberry bushThe mulberry bushHere we go ’round the mulberry bushOn a cold and frosty morning
This is the way we wash our faceWash our faceWash our faceThis is the way we wash our faceOn a cold and frosty morning
This is the way we brush our teethBrush our teethBrush our teethThis is the way we brush our teethOn a cold and frosty morning
This is the way we comb our hairComb our hairComb our hairThis is the way we comb our hairOn a cold and frosty morning
This is the way we put on our clothesPut on our clothesPut on our clothesThis is the way we put on our clothesOn a cold and frosty morning

According to historian RS Duncan, this nursery rhyme originated from Wakefield Prison in England, where female inmates had to exercise around a mulberry tree in the prison yard.


Pop Goes The Weasel

All around the cobbler’s bench
the monkey chased the weasel;
The monkey thought ’twas all was fun,
Pop! Goes the weasel

A penny for a spool of thread
A penny for a needle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! Goes the weasel

This apparently nonsensical rhyme is about poverty, pawnbroking, the minimum wage.


Rock-a-bye Baby

Rock a bye baby, on the tree top
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Rock-a-bye Baby refers to events preceding the Glorious Revolution (1688-89). The “baby” in this nursery rhyme refers to the son of King James II of England, who was widely believed to be another man’s son, smuggled into the birthing room to ensure a Roman Catholic heir. The “wind” may be the Protestant forces from the Netherlands; the doomed “cradle”, the royal House of Stuart. The earliest recorded print even contained this ominous footnote: “This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high they generally fall at last”.



We may never know what the lyrics of these nursery rhymes were truly about. Nursery rhymes may just be cautionary tales, or stories we tell for entertainment back in the day.

While we can enjoy the original lyrics as they are, now that I am aware of the not-so-pleasant origins of these nursery rhymes, I find no reason to continue singing the original lyrics.
Why not adapt it for our times? After all, nursery rhymes have always played a huge part in our early development, by way of fostering emotional connections through parent-child bonding, introducing music, cultivating language, and aiding in mental development and spatial reasoning (BBC Britain, 2023).


We recently sang Rock-a-bye Baby during our FMT (Musikgarten’s Family Music for Toddlers) lesson, and one of our Mummies shared that she wants a more positive ending to an otherwise horrific one, and I have decided this is the version I am going to sing for the generations to come!


Rock-a-bye baby

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall

Mummy will catch you, cradle and all


I interpret this adapted Rock-a-bye Baby as such:
There are moments our child(ren) are going to be out there in the world on their own.
As they navigate life by themselves, their journey might be tumultuous,
and they might fail.
As parents, while we cannot pick up the pieces of their failure for them, we can be there beside them to help by listening, and supporting them, so that they can pick themselves up, and try again.




What do you think of this version of Rock-a-bye Baby?

Which other nursery rhymes would you adapt? Share them with me in conversation (send me an email at!


I hope you have enjoyed this titbit about nursery rhymes, and you leave with a pleasant take-away despite the horror.

Have a fun Halloween Trick-or-Treating! 🌕🕯️👻🎃🕷️🕸️🦇⚰️💀☠️🧟🧛🧙