In Pop Goes the Weasel, Albert Jack has produced a fascinating exploration of the story behind much-loved nursery rhymes.
Many of the seemingly innocent songs and rhymes that we remember from our childhood often have a darker history. Albert Jack explores the origins of those popular and much loved nursery rhymes and other popular songs in Pop Goes the Weasel.
The sections are arranged in alphabetical order by title and each consists of a few pages of background and in most cases the full words to the rhyme. Where he can the author is definitive about a rhyme's source but in many cases there is more than one possible explanation. In such cases Albert Jack is even-handed and details the alternative origins and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Satire, Politics, Protest and Historic Commentary
Without counting it feels as though most nursery rhymes have a political origin. They were often satirical, poking fun at foibles of the great and the good such as with "Georgie Porgie". Although which George it refers to is open to question as the author explains. It may have been George Villiers (1592-1628), First Duke of Buckingham, who seems to have had a romantic relationship with James I of England. Alternatively "Georgie Porgie" may be about the Prince Regent George IV who was definitely heterosexual and used his position for his own advantage.
Frederick, the brother of George IV, as is usual for the second son of the English monarch, had the title Duke of York. Like his brother he may well have inspired a well-known nursery rhyme, in his case "The Grand Old Duke of York". As with many rhymes the background is of an ineffectual authority figure and in this case it is Frederick's incompetence as a military commander. However he did go on to reform the military which enabled Nelson and Wellington to have their successes.
Many others such as "Bah, Bah Black Sheep" are protests at the inequity in society and punitive taxation on working folk. As well as a historic reference to protest many other nursery rhymes and popular songs chronicle historic events. It seems "Humpty Dumpty" was a cannon used by the Royalist forces in the English Civil War (1642-51) to protect Colchester. It was used from the top of a church tower which made it an even more effective defence. The town only fell to the Parliamentarians when the tower was destroyed and the cannon "Humpty Dumpty" did indeed have a great fall and could not be restored to action.
However there are nursery rhymes that are innocent and do not have dark histories. The American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, denied for many years that he was the author of "There was a Little Girl". He wrote it when trying to get her to brush her hair hence the line "Who had a little curl".
Traditional Songs and Anthems
The final section explains the background to traditional songs and anthems; chronicling their history from popular tunes to national anthems with all the pomp and respect they are given. It will come as surprise to many that the tune of "The Anacreontic Song", an eighteenth century drinking song from a London Club is now better known as the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner", the national anthem of the USA. Even more surprising perhaps is that status was only formally conferred on "The Star Spangled Banner" in 1931 although it had been used at formal, initially military, events since the nineteenth century.
A Book for Social Historians, Lovers of Trivia or Language
So Pop Goes the Weasel is a fascinating book to either read either cover to cover or to dip into. Pop Goes the Weasel scotches many popular myths about the origins of nursery rhymes and traditional songs and confirms others. It is useful addition to the library of any social historian, trivia or lover of language. It is a fun and nostalgic read.
Pop Goes the Weasel, The Secret Meaning of Nursery Rhymes(2010 ISBN: 978-0-141-03098-2 ) by Albert Jack is published by Penguin in paper back at £7.99 (Can$20)
First appeared on Suite101