Heavy Words Lightly Thrown

As a librarian Chris Roberts is familiar with the sources of the nursery rhymes familiar to almost everybody. As the conductor of walking tours in London he knows how to present the results of research to the general public. Therefore, he is well equipped to tell the stories, some of them unexpectedly bizarre, underlying seemingly innocent nursery rhymes. These stories, which Roberts judges in some cases likely, if perhaps unprovable, in others of dubious authenticity, frequently make sense out of the rhymes.

It is probably not often that those reciting or listening to these rhymes even bother to ask whether they make sense. Perhaps nursery rhymes are not supposed to make sense. Take for instance “Baa, baa, black sheep.” One of two common versions of the last line of this rhyme is “And none for the little boy who lives down the line.” Why should that be? That is a question that seems to have no answer. Consider wool, however, as an important basis of England's wealth. The Lord Chancellor sits on a woolsack. In medieval times farmers had to give one third of their income—their wool—to the local lord, their master, one third to the “dame,” the Church. They (the “little boy”) were entitled to keep the last “bag” of wool. That there might not have been enough in that third bag to live on was of vital significance to the poor farmer.

All kinds of events and situations are submerged in the rhymes. “Goosie, goosie, gander” and “Jack and Jill” may conceal sexual innuendos; “Sing a song of sixpence” may be about two of Henry VIII's unfortunate wives. Whatever they are about, Roberts's comments are always shrewd, lively, and well-informed in Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme.