Rock-a-bye Baby - a lullaby for the rocking chair
The True Story Behind Rock-a-bye Baby
Rock a bye baby, in the treetop,
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, thy cradle is green;
Father’s a nobleman, mother’s a queen;
And Betty’s a lady, and wears a gold ring;
And Johnny’s a drummer, and drums for the king.
As a child this poem disturbed me. The tune was perfect, soothing and soft and able to send any wild child to sleep but the words often gave me nightmares. Why do we sing a lullaby of a baby falling from a tree, possibly to their death? Both my parents tried to convince me that the baby lands safe and well in their parent’s arms but I was never really convinced and in the end the words were locked away and only the lullabies tune hummed.
Now almost 21 and nearing the line which divides children from adults, I reflected back on some of the things that always confused me as a child such as when Mum said it was going to rain buckets and when Dad would say we’re going UP to Newcastle and DOWN to Sydney. Nursery rhymes always confused me and imagine my horror when I learnt that “Ring a Round a Rosy” was actually referring to the Black Death! Who in their right mind would make a child’s nursery rhyme about one of our darkest moments in history?
And so I return back to the just as disturbing and symbolically rich lullaby, “Rock-a-bye Baby”. The two stanzas of the poem seem to have nothing to do with each other and more often than not, most people only know the first one. We are not taught the words but almost subconsciously pick it up from our parents and grandparents who did the same before them. So where did this lullaby come from?
It is claimed that its tune is derived from the English Ballad, “Lilliburlero” and was written in America (many believe it is the first poem ever written in America.) Originally it was titled “Hush-a-bye Baby” but later changed to “Rock-a-bye-Baby” possibly due to increasing ownership of rocking chairs and baby cradles and refers to the events that occur in the poem.
Evidence points out that the poem originates from around the 1600’s when a passenger on the Mayflower wrote the first stanza on arrival of America. The second stanza is believed to have been written and added at a later time.
But why does the poor baby fall from the tree?
Wikipedia mentions a few reasons for the falling baby however it really is up to you to decide which one sounds more convincing. It could be one or all of the possibilities but unfortunately there is no way to be absolutely sure.
- It is said that the pilgrim on the Mayflower pioneer wrote the lullaby whilst watching women of a native-American tribe gently string up their children in birch-bark cradles from tree branches, allowing the wind to rock the baby to sleep. The event in the poem of the bough breaking was apparently a real occurrence with the supporting branches high tendency to break and injure the infant.
- The title change of ‘Hush-a-bye Baby’ to ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’ was recorded first in 1805 and may be referring to the Earl of Sandwich’s son who was accidentally tossed without warning from his cradle into the Thames River in 1706 and was never found.
- Another reference of the poems origins is to a woman known as Betty Kenny who lived in England in the late 1700’s with her eight children inside a yew tree where a bough was hollowed out and used as a cradle.
- Many others claim that poem is strewn full of political symbolism referring to the events that preceded the revolution during King James II of England’s reign. Rumour has it; a baby was smuggled into the birthing chamber of King James II’s wife to insure a Catholic heir. The wind apparently can be symbolic for William of Orange coming from the Netherlands to dispose of King James II and the cradle represents the fall of the House of Stuart monarchy.
Four reasons. Four possibilities. In the end it’s your choice which one you believe. From now on though, when you sing this lullaby to your children, think of the meaning behind the words and maybe start to contemplate other poems and lullabies that you sing. Personally, when I think back to my childhood, I realise that my younger brother and sister never had a problem with this poem and in fact enjoyed it. Maybe it’s because I was older when they we’re sung the lullaby and, unlike me, they didn’t think as much of the words but focused more on the tune? When I have children (a scary thought) I will hum this poem, teach them the tune but whether I will subconsciously teach them the words is yet to be determined.
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- A Beautiful Nursery Rhyme Book
This book is beautifully illustrated and a must for every child's library. You must have a look.