Childhood rhymes hold dark histories

by Paige Bourquin

If you are around children or watching a horror movie, a common thing you will hear are the children singing familiar nursery rhymes. As a child, you remember them being so wholesome and fun to sing, but listening to them now, you get a chill from each of these old songs. But what is the true meaning of these creepy songs?

A common nursery rhyme sung by children is “Ring Around the Rosie.” We all have memories of singing the song in a circle and falling to the ground. But a common theory of the origins of this cheerful song is the bubonic plague that wiped out 1/3rd of Europe in the medieval period. The roses part of the song is thought to be the rashes that appear when someone has gotten the plague, with the posies — a collection of flowers into a bouquet — being a common attempt to cure the disease. The final line represents everyone dying:

Ring around the rosie
Pocket full of posies
Ashes, Ashes
We all fall down  

A catchy song that sticks in heads is "The Ants Go Marching." It's a common one to see kindergarten kids playing too. The story of the ants is not a dark one, but the original song the tune goes to is. The original song is from the American Civil War, called “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” Johnny lost his legs in the war, and now he can't run or dance, as the song implies. Amputation was common in the Civil War, but often brutal and deadly without the sanitation and antibiotics of modern medicine.

The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah.

The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah.

The ants go marching one by one,

The little one stops to suck his thumb.

And they all go marching down,

To the ground, to get out of the rain.


Where are your legs that used to run, huroo, huroo,

Where are your legs that used to run, huroo, huroo,

Where are your legs that used to run when first you went for to carry a gun?

Alas, your dancing days are done, och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

For the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty,” we often think of an egg, but in reality, it is a story about an old English King Richard III. He fell during battle, with the wall representing the fall of the kingdom, and all the men couldn’t save the country, as in not being able to put Humpty together again. Others say that the wall was his horse, where he fell and died. The men were then unable to help him, and that’s how Humpty met his doom.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again

“Baa Baa Black Sheep” is another nursery rhyme that is debated about what it means. The most common and widely accepted theory is that it’s about a wool tax in 13th century England. The original lyrics weren’t as fair as the ones we sing now, with two going to the singer’s “master,” one to the “Dame” and none left for anyone else. It is also debated on whether or not it’s about the slave trade, with the wool being cotton picked by slaves. It was changed later on to be more child-friendly, getting rid of the original history.

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.


Bah, Bah, a black Sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes old mate I have

Three bags full,

Two for my master,

One for my dame,

None for the little boy

That cries in the lane.

A final rhyme that we all know is “London Bridge is Falling Down.” We commonly see little kids running through arches, holding their arms over the laughing kids, as the song concludes and the “bridge falls down.” The oldest recorded version of the lyrics is very different from the ones we know now, with the bridge breaking, not falling. There are a few debated origins of this song. The first one is the Viking invasion of London in 1014, with translated poems finding a verse talking about this event, with the bridge falling down during the battle. A second theory is that as they are discussing the materials that the bridge was made out of. A big theory was that the bridge was made of prisoners’ bones, all who were sentenced to death by immurement, a medieval punishment where they put someone in an enclosed room with no openings or exits and left to die. Thankfully, there is no evidence to confirm this theory, but at the time that it was written, it could have been a widely speculated rumor. In regards to the fair lady, there is no concrete answer. My personal opinion is that it’s Queen Victoria, but the more widely accepted fact going back to the first theory is the Virgin Mary, who was thought to protect London from the Vikings.

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, Falling down.

London Bridge is falling down,

My fair lady.

Take a key and lock her up,

Lock her up, Lock her up.

Take a key and lock her up,

My fair lady.

Leave her in there and let her burn

Let her burn, Let her burn

Leave her in there and let her burn

My fair lady

 How will we build it up,

Build it up, Build it up,

How will we build it up,

My fair lady?

Build it up with gold and silver,

gold and silver, gold and silver.

Build it up with gold and silver,

My fair lady.

Gold and silver I have none,

I have none, I have none.

Gold and silver I have none,

My fair lady.


London Bridge

Is Broken down,

Dance over my Lady Lee.

London Bridge,

Is Broken down,

With a gay Lady.


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