Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty Five
April 8, 2016
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Getting your little one off to sleep is always a challenge and this rhyme has often been deployed to good effect. The original version, published in 1765 in Mother Goose, went as follows, “Hush-a-by baby/ on the tree top/ when the wind blows/ the cradle will rock./ When the bough breaks/ the cradle will fall/ and down will fall baby/ cradle and all”. A visit from Children’s Services may follow shortly afterwards if this innovative approach to a baby’s sleeping arrangements was followed today.
The version printed in the 1805 edition of Songs for the Nursery introduced the following couplet at the head of the rhyme, “Rock-a-bye baby, thy cradle is green/ Father’s a nobleman, mother’s a queen”. The most common version replaces the original Hush-a-by with Rock-a-bye but follows the Mother Goose wording.
For a fairly simple if disturbing rhyme there are a number of competing theories as to its origin. The simplest is that the rhyme mimics the actions of the mother (or in these more enlightened times, the father as well) who rocks the baby in her arms and then lowers her arms to put the baby in its crib or cot. So the baby moves from an elevated position synonymous with a tree top and finishes up in a lower position. It could be a dandling song, a lyric sung to the infant as it was moved up and down in the adult’s arms.
But this is too prosaic for some. One competing theory is that the rhyme reflects the practice of some Native Americans of putting their young in birch-bark cradles suspended on the branches of the trees. This was a labour saving arrangement as the wind would rock the child but the dangers of too strong a gust were evident. Closer to home, a contender is to be found at Shining Cliff Woods near Ambergate in Derbyshire. The highest point of what I am told is a pleasant walk is Betty Kenny’s tree which was adjacent to the home of an 18th century charcoal burner. The story goes that his children were rocked to sleep in the tree. The problem with both these stories is dating. The first published version of the rhyme was 1765 and presumes that it was current at least in oral tradition well before then.
Another possible explanation is that along with the tune, Lillibulero, to which it is sung, it refers to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which a catholic return was suppressed. The baby is supposed to be the child smuggled in to the birthing room to provide James II with a catholic heir. The wind, the theory goes, refers to the arrival of William of Orange from the Netherlands and the cradle is supposed to be the royal house of Stuart. The first recorded version of the rhyme does come with an admonitory footnote, “this may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious who climb so high that they fall at last”. From a chronological perspective it would all fit and the footnote is hard to explain away if it was a simple dandling song. I think it is too elaborate an explanation but it has to be seriously considered.
To add to all the confusion, an advert in the Times of 1887 referred to the performance in London of a new American song called Rock-a-bye by an American minstrel group. Further advertisements proclaim it to be a new and charming American ballad which had swept the States by storm. It is not certain whether it bore any relationship to our rhyme or the melody to Lillibulero but if it did it may just mean that the native American derivation could be right.
As they say, you pays your money and you takes your choice.