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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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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Comments 20 comments

Me 7 years ago

So what do you think it means?

Sandy Graves 6 years ago

While pregnant with my first child I realized that Rock-a-bye baby is a birthing song. If you think of the cradle as the womb and the tree rocking as a woman in labor this is a beautiful song that gently and simply explains childbirth. I am surprised that no one else seems to have this as a possible meaning of the song. I am currently creating a sculpture with this idea in mind.

CAROL 6 years ago


Pearl 6 years ago

I made a "family tree" for my grandson. At the top I "cradled" a picture of his sonogram. I let the lyrics "Down will come baby, cradle and all" lead the eye downward across the page to a reproduction of " The Cradle" by Berthe Morisot" Like Sandy Graves, I had made a comparison to birthing. (And for the first time I actually enjoyed the lyrics!)

jasmine 6 years ago

I always thought this song had a good and bad meaning but i thought it gave me a scary image

Victoria 6 years ago

first of all i believe it was of native-Americans gently stringing up their children in birch-bark cradles from tree branches but if u think about a lot of lullabys and rhymes are scary like (as u said) ring around the rosy because of stench they would put posies in the pockets of dead people ashes i think u know that one and all fall down...dead and also london bridges is about queen mary (a.k.a. bloody mary) because she would cut peoples heads off (alice in wonderland: "OFF WITH HER HEAD" i wonder if the queen of hearts name was mary....but in actuallity alice in wonderland was a political thing i mean if u read the book it's a lot different WAIT hehe....WAY off topic yet still on it haha)

Diana 6 years ago

I never thought about the song like that until now.

naby 6 years ago

The game London bridge refers to the fact thst when a bridge was built they would bury a child in it for good luck- or whatever- and the kid that gets caught in the "game" version symbolizes the kid that dies and gets buried! Ps-I refuse to sing ring around the rosie to my kids...who would really want to play there kids are dieing? no one sane i hope!

Frankee 6 years ago

Jeeze, what's the issue here? You lot have now gone so mad, that you have decided that a child gets some emothional scarring 20 years after he heard this song. When you were that small you never did question the lyrics ecause you were too small. Now that you're older it's suddenly bothering you so badly... To me that's quite a big sign of imaturity on your part. Maybe your parents should have sung more of these songs to you, so that you could have grown up properly.

Ashley 6 years ago

I agree with frankie; besides, this does help us to learn about history(albeit in a weird way), and it's a memory that one passes on via a catchy tune with underlying meaning in the lyrics. I'm going to sing these tunes to my children one day, It's a part of culture.

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Bill 6 years ago

I'm actually interested in hearig more about these songs. I read a lot about these a few years back and can't remember where.. to those whi feel they are "our culture and they should be taught because its just what we've done for so many years. I agree to an extent. I'm just curious to know the actual origins of these rhymes and when/why we started singing them to children.. its strange that we do.. for such dark meanings.. if anyone had any valid input on this topic.. feel free to contact me .. I'm still in search of the original place I read about these rhymes.. they had lots listed and a large percentage of them had dark meanings.. but were considered children songs or rhymes.. why do we recite them to children. why would they make something so dark seem so innocent that we would want to recite them to children.. not knowing the origin... interested in knowing more ... Bill

shelby 6 years ago

it means that when a native american women had a child she would hang a cradle in the tree on a branch so that when the wind blew it would rock her baby to sleep.

MarilynMorrison profile image

MarilynMorrison 5 years ago

Great hub.

E.P. Dowdall 4 years ago

Yes, always thought that lullabye needed a little more explanation. How about this for a simple second verse solution...

Rock-a-bye baby in the tree top

If a storm comes the cradle may drop

Don't be afraid of all the world's harms

I'll be there to catch you, safe in my arms

Michelle 4 years ago

I understand the ring around the rosy to be made up by children about the black plague. The children saw so many of their family and friends dying, they had to have a way to cope. Think about it, when a child doesn't quite understand something they see, they make up a saying, or rhyme... It was the childrens way of coping, but explaining to other children what was happening. I'm guessing that it worked for adults too, and it was a type of warning. I think that it was passed on from generation to generation to warn each other of the signs of the plague, as they didn't know what was causing so many to die. Also, I believe that (as other commenters have said) it doesn't bother children until they get older. They don't understand the words, so it doesn't scare them. It's more about the tune.

Mary 2 years ago

it seems to me when they say the baby's father is a nobleman and the mother is queen that it may have been an illegitimate child who was a threat to the throne and was killed

Charity 2 years ago

Sounds like a idea for a horror movie.

Snoop Dogg 2 years ago

Don't you feeble minded idiots understand?

The tree branch broke and crushed the poor baby.

That is why we never hear a second verse, unless it is a funeral verse.

The little baby, all sound asleep

he didn't see the lion coming to eat

then to poor baby went in its jaws

as the great lion crushed him in his paws

jeff 19 months ago

I thought it was about a women tied children to a top of tree to male them sleepy and then she sometime use to cut the ropes or what ever she had and they would fall and wake up with injures and die

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