Nursery Rhymes Deconstructed: Sing a Song of Sixpence

by Samantha on June 26, 2011

So by now, if you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a bit sarcastic. Just a tad.
I’m also very curious, and thank the University of Toronto for my supposed “critical thinking.” If this trait won’t help me in my career, well heck – it will provide entertainment value for this blog.
That said, I am starting a series that is, no surprise, one that allows me to use that so-called “critical” approach to some of the more mundane aspects of parenting. Without further ado, I’m delving into the world of nursery rhymes. Yes, I am going there. Also part of this series in upcoming blog posts: deconstructing children’s books, deconstructing children’s songs, and deconstructing children’s movies. 
If you, like me, have been forced to recite some of the most trite, inane as well as disturbing and confusing poems of youth, then read on.
How often have I picked up a children’s nursery rhyme book, recited a chosen passage, while in my mind thought to myself “this is so messed up, it’s not even funny?!” Yet still, I continue to read, while in my head, I’m chastising myself for potentially causing my child permanent damage, anxiety and otherwise because of this poem. I’m not kidding. Some of them are downright scary. And I realize that I must not be alone in these thoughts.
With that preamble, I’ll launch into a look at one of the scariest nursery rhymes of my own youth, “Sing a Song of Sixpence.”

Image courtesy of www.social.entertainment.msn.com

 Check out the full rhyme (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye. 
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
The king was in his counting house
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.
Now, I realize that to deconstruct every single word, phrase and stanza would be somewhat dry, so I’ll focus in on the few that made the hairs on my arms stand up from the time I first heard this as a little girl.
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie
Not meaning to be alarmist, but am I the only one that is really horrified by this idea? Perhaps it is made further gruesome by the image that accompanied this verse in my childhood nursery rhyme book, one I still remember, that showed what appeared to be a freshly-baked pie with beaks and black heads of birds clamoring to escape! This gave me nightmares for years. It still creeps me out to this day.

 “When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose

Visions of a medieval washer-woman type with a gaping hole in her face where her nose was “pecked off” was all I could think of as a young, impressionable child. What did she look like without a nose? Was there a lot of blood on her clothing? Did she pass out from the loss of blood that resulted from her nose being taken by an errant group of angry birds? These were some of the questions that seriously went through my mind as a young child upon hearing this “harmless” tale. Talk about scary.

Oh, and is it any surprise that little Johnny and little Janie want to sleep in mommy and daddy’s bed after hearing this story? Yet they might well be sent to their own beds because they are big boys and girls (we tell them) and it’s only a story, after all. 

It’s really surprising that there is not more talk about whether these stories do more harm than good, looking at them with a more critical, adult eye. Being a parent, I often wonder if I’m adding to my kids’ anxieties by my actions, and reading nursery rhymes is one of them.

So, to that end, I’ll ask these questions:

Do you feel that nursery rhymes such as “Sing a Song of Sixpence” are harmless or harmful to children? Do you read these types of evocative rhymes to your kids? Why or why not? What are your favorite or most DISliked nursery rhymes and why?

Here are The Wiggles singing “Sing a Song of Sixpence” in the spirit of this post (I find that the happy music accompanying the lyrics just makes it all the more creepier. But that’s just me).



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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kindred Adventures June 28, 2011 at 2:53 am

I love your take on the children's nursery rhymes and I look forward to reading more. I have heard before that some of them are scary and there is history behind them (can't tell you what). I have also felt the same way reading those stories.. really? They actually wrote this and for kids! First time visitor over from Redhead Riter's Woo Us To Your Blog -Laverne from Kindredadventures.blogspot.com

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Samantha June 28, 2011 at 7:00 pm

@Kindred Adventures Thanks for coming by and I'm so glad that this post was thought-provoking. Nursery rhymes have certainly been so for me as I've often wondered about the thinking behind some of these scary stories that we are supposed to recite to our kids. Definitely stay tuned, as I plan on covering a number of "old favorites" in upcoming posts!

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Diomy March 2, 2012 at 3:07 am

This song, like many other rhymes, was a way to convey information in the 1700s and earlier without getting your head cut off. This song in particular is an advertisement to work for Blackbeard. When I was born, the folklore movement was popular, so I was fortunate to receive the explanation to several nursery rhymes. "Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye." That's basically saying "Tell everyone that the salary for the ship is the sixpence and a bottle of whiskey. This at least what I was told. Its all about the moolah. :D

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Samantha May 28, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Wow – it may be all about the money but it’s still creepy nonetheless! Thanks for the explanation :)

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