Five favourite nursery rhymes

Nursery rhymes are a rite of passage, every (*excepting a very small number) child will have heard or will know by heart a vast number of different nursery rhymes. I don’t recall exactly how I learnt any nursery rhymes and I definitely cannot remember who taught me them, or who helped me to learn them by heart, but the fact that I do know so many is a testament to their usage. I remember watching Sister Act 2 and when Delores asks one of the girls to sing ‘Mary had a little lamb…’ she looked like a deer in headlights. Everyone laughed and joked over how ridiculous it was that Maria didn’t know that Mary had a little lamb. It is unusual, but perhaps she didn’t learn about Mary, maybe she learnt about ‘Three Blind Mice’ or ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’.

I was walking down the street the other day and a young woman (who looked young enough to have just done her GCSEs) was singing ‘wind the bobbin up’ to the child she was pushing along in a pram. It got me to thinking, we sing these rhymes and yet we don’t necessarily know where they come from or what they mean. I don’t know if the girl, or her child, know what a bobbin is, but I did wonder if perhaps they didn’t. It is a song that parents sing with their children and understanding the words only really comes second to that.

When I sat down to think about my favourite nursery rhymes I couldn’t quite remember which mattered the most to me. I know plenty by heart, I know all of the usual rhymes, and a couple of other besides. But were they the ones I favoured?

My instinct was to dig out my big red book, it’s not so big anymore and the red is more of a salmon colour, but it’s still my book filled with nursery rhymes, children’s poems and stories. So I found my book and it was like returning to my childhood, I read through every nursery rhyme, and then I read the poems and flicked through the stories as well.

It’s weird, really, that the rhymes you love the most aren’t necessarily the rhymes you know by heart. Some of them are, but some of them are almost like a distant memory you forgot to remember. That doesn’t change the feelings I have over them, though.

1. Where has my little dog gone?

There’s something so sweet and beautiful about this little diddy that I can’t help feel like it needs to be on my list. It’s not one of the more common rhymes, but the descriptions used have always appealed.

Where, oh, where has my little dog gone?

Oh, where, o, where can he be?

With his tail cut short, and his ears cut long –

Oh, where, oh, where can he be?

(I used to think the last line went Oh, where, oh, where is he? which may be an alternative ending, it’s less repetitive anyway.)

2. Three Little Kittens

Is it any wonder that a cat lover like myself would love a nursery rhyme about kittens? This is one of two that involve cats. It’s so random, really, when you look at the words and try to make sense of this rhyme. It doesn’t, really. The lines make sense in a grammatical way, but the actually story of the rhyme is rather odd.

Three little kittens they lost their mittens,
And they began to cry,
Oh, mother dear, we sadly fear
Our mittens we have lost.
What! lost your mittens, you naughty kittens!
Then you shall have no pie.
Mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow.
No, you shall have no pie.

The three little kittens they found their mittens,
And they began to cry,
Oh, mother dear, see here, see here,
Our mittens we have found!
Put on your mittens, you silly kittens,
And you shall have some pie.
Purr-r, purr-r, purr-r,
Oh, let us have some pie.

The three little kittens put on their mittens,
And soon ate up the pie;
Oh, mother dear, we greatly fear
Our mittens we have soiled.
What! soiled your mittens, you naughty kittens!
Then they began to sigh,
Mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow.
Then they began to sigh.

The three little kittens they washed their mittens,
And hung them out to dry;
Oh! mother dear, do you not hear,
Our mittens we have washed!
What! washed your mittens, then you’re good kittens,
But I smell a rat close by.
Mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow.
We smell a rat close by.

(Interestingly enough, the version in my red book is a little different, it ends on purr, purr, purr and doesn’t include the line after meow, meow, meow either. Though as I read through it, it felt natural to add ‘then you shall have no/some pie’ onto the end of those lines, so I’ve obviously heard both versions at some point in time.)

3. Sing a Song of Sixpence

This is probably one of the more famous rhymes out of my small list of favourites, for as long as I can remember I’ve known the words and I even have a faint recollection of a picture that tells the story.

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 parlor,

Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,

Hanging out the clothes,

When down came a blackbird

And pecked off her nose.

(One of the nicest things about Sing a Song is the amount of learning you can do with this poem. Rye, parlor, four and twenty, they are all opportunities for a parent to pass knowledge down to their child(ren). What an unusual tale it is, though. That poor woman. They’re rather gruesome some of these nursery rhymes, really. Just look at Ring-a-Ring of Roses.)

4. There Was a Crooked Man

(I’m not sure why so many nursery rhymes are made up of such weird and wonderful storytelling. I wonder if perhaps crooked meant something else, in this context?)

There was a crooked man, and he

walked a crooked mile,

He found a crooked sixpence

beside a crooked stile;

He bought a crooked cat,

which caught a crooked mouse,

And they all lived together

in a little crooked house.

(Despite the unusual situation this man has found himself in, it’s got some charm which really makes me smile.)

5. Ladybird, Ladybird

Ladybird, Ladybird, is probably one of the saddest nursery rhymes I have ever heard. There are many accounts of this rhyme but I will share with you the one that I know best. Get a tissue ready.

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home!

Your house is on fire, your children all gone;

All but one, and her name is Ann,

And she crept under the frying pan.

(What a horrible idea that a ladybird’s home is on fire and her children all gone. By gone, I assume they mean dead. It’s such a beautiful moment when we discover that, in actual fact, Ann has survived.)

So there we have it, my five favourite nursery rhymes. There are many, many more out there which I have a soft spot for.

What are your favourite nursery rhymes or rhymes you learnt as a child?

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