I've read other books about the origins of nursery rhymes, and one of the most fascinating aspects of comparing them is how many different interpretations can be placed on the seemingly innocent chants we learned to recite as children. Chris Roberts' Heavy Words Lightly Thrown emphasizes the very British origins of most of the best-known rhymes, even including a glossary to help explain his London slang. This is not an academic book, for Roberts' background and expertise come from his careers as a librarian and the leader of walking tours of London.
As readers here undoubtedly know, nursery rhymes were not written for the amusement of children but as a way of expressing ideas too socially radical, politically dangerous or sexually wicked to be declared in plain English. Roberts delightfully connects this tradition to that of rhyming slang, in which a potentially naughty word is replaced by a phrase with which it rhymes and then the rhyming bit is often dropped, so that "cobbler's awls," for instance, replaces "balls," but the term is usually reduced to "cobbler's," as in, "What a load of cobbler's!" which is a more polite phrase than "What a load of bollocks!" Because Roberts' cultural points of reference are, as he points out, "very British," this book is particularly hilarious for American readers who are likely to get an education not only in nursery rhymes but in London dialect as well. The casual tone of the book is quite different from, say, Marina Warner's analysis of the more terrifying childhood rhymes in No Go the Bogeyman and it's not as erudite as Who Really Killed Cock Robin? by Norman Iles, but that makes it particularly fun to read.
Roberts points out, for instance, that what Jack and Jill were doing up that hill had nothing to do with fetching water and it wasn't the "crown" on Jack's head that was broken. Roberts makes note of the fact that the origin of the rhyme may have been a Scandinavian folk tale, but the use of "Jack" and "Jill" as generic terms for a man and a woman and the fact that Jill gets spanked in a later verse strongly suggests that the rhyme was popularly understood to be naughty before it was appropriated for childhood singsong. Various forms of religious persecution are discussed as probable sources of "Ladybird, Ladybird," while "Oranges and Lemons," which is about the bells of various London churches, might be a guide to London neighborhoods or a list of items associated with weddings. I was particularly interested to read that "Yankee Doodle" -- which I think of as a most patriotic American song -- was originally sung by British troops to make the colonial army sound as if it was made up of pretty boys with no fighting skills, but the US troops adopted it after Bunker Hill.
In the cases of certain rhymes, such as "Ring-a-Ring o'Roses" and "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary," there are conflicting explanations, and Roberts includes them all. Many of us have heard the explanation that "Ring Around the Rosie," as we know it on this side of the Atlantic, is about the Black Death. But Roberts points out that that explanation may exist to cover up the fact that this "children's game" allowed young folk to get around the prohibition on dancing in the Puritan era, much the way certain nursery rhymes themselves, like "Georgie Porgie," exist so that subjects could joke about a king's sexual orientation without risking arrest. "Mary, Mary" almost certainly refers to a Catholic Mary, but whether the subject is the Virgin with her nuns and pilgrims' bells, the frivolous Mary Queen of Scots or the torture and widowing carried out by Mary Tudor remains a topic for debate.
It isn't necessary to read a book to discover the origins of nursery rhymes; the Nursery Rhymes Lyrics and Origins Web site, to name just one, has fairly solid explanations and more sophisticated illustrations than the black-and-white shadow drawings enlivening Roberts' book. Yet Heavy Words Lightly Thrown offers contemporary wit along with its descriptions and some fine analytical chapters such as one on animals in the songs and why "Mother Goose" gets so much attention in the United States. This volume is a pleasure to read and useful for reference as well, though an index in future editions would be greatly appreciated.
Green Man Reviews