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Life might be a fairy tale, but is that a good way to sing your kids to sleep?

I love to sing. I sing in the shower;  the shampoo bottle makes a fabulous microphone. I sing in the car, unless it’s a rap song, and then I just try to figure out what the words are that are being screamed at me. I would sing on the treadmill, but the last time I was on a treadmill, I couldn’t even breathe, much less sing. I even sing at karaoke. I am not one of those really great singers, I am more like “the drunker you get, the better I sound” kind of singer.

My favorite singing time, though, has to be time spent singing to my grandkids.  Thanks to my friend Bill, however, my innocent days of singing nursery songs and rhymes are over. With one fell swoop he knocked the wind out of my songs. I had no idea that the words I was singing to my grandkids had such meaning. “Ring around the Rosie” is based on the Bubonic Plague. The rings were the deadly rash, the ashes depicted the burning of the infected bodies and the rats that spread the infection via the water system. Pockets full of posies came about because people filled their pockets with flower petals believing they would ward off the disease. That’s not exactly what I was thinking when I taught that song to the day care kids earlier this year. (Thanks, Bill.)

I didn’t give up there, though. I have been singing these songs as long as I can remember. In fact, my own kids thought I wrote most of them when they were mere babes.

Of, course Stacey thought her grandma wrote The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, and Kerry thought her father was a super model. Not that that’s pertinent to this story, but it does show how innocent the mind can be.

I wasn’t thinking about beheadings when I sang about Jack and Jill either. Jack: King Louis XVI,  Jill: Queen Marie Antoinette, both beheaded during the Reign of Terror in 1793.

Like this nursery rhyme, most songs have some meaning based in history. If I had known that sooner, I don’t think I would have sang that particular song to my children in jest!

While I thought Humpty Dumpty was a fat little egg in Alice in Wonderland, all the time he was not even a person at all, but a large cannon used during the English Civil War from 1642-1649. I was singing about Royalists and Parliamentarians blowing churches and castles up, thinking I was singing about a cute little chubby fellow that fell off a wall and broke a couple of ribs. Old Mother Hubbard is a song about divorce between King Henry and Queen Katherine, because the King couldn’t be faithful, and Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, is about Mary Tudor. Yup, good old Bloody Mary has a nursery rhyme. Silver bells and cockleshells were actually instruments of torture and I am not even going to try to explain to you what body part those instruments were used on! Pretty maids all in a row were devices to behead a person. In the 1400s the “maid” device sometimes required 10 or 11 blows to actually sever the head,  although it became easier after in the invention of the guillotine (which became known as a “Maiden”), in the 1500s. Makes me feel kind of bad about singing my kids to sleep with that one.

Ever sing “ladybug, ladybug, fly away home?” That one is about Catholics who refused to attend Protestant services in the 1500s. Priests who attempted to perform Mass anyway were burnt alive at the stake or worse, hung, drawn and quartered. I am not real sure how one could possibly have been worse than the other.

Bloody Mary is also the subject of the Three Blind Mice. The three mice were three noble men accused of plotting against the Queen and although she didn’t have them blinded, she did have them burned at the stake, which in some weird way blinded them I suppose.

Don’t get me wrong, all nursery rhymes aren’t based in some sick moment of history that people feel the need to commemorate by singing our kids to sleep with those nightmarish tales. “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly,” for instance, isn’t old enough to really have a history. But do we really want to sing about a bug-swallowing lady, who for some strange reason swallows a horse and dies in the end anyway? Rock-a-bye baby is based in Native American history. A young pilgrim boy saw the Native women carrying their children in wooden cradles on their backs. They would also suspend them from birch trees in the wind to calm the babies. At least there is no scariness there. Unless of course the baby fell out of the tree, which isn’t in the history but is certainly in the song.

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmicht was a song I liked to sing just because it was fun to say. Now, however, I find that it was about the German immigrants and made fun of their longish names which were common in that time. Politically incorrect, and I certainly don’t want my grandbabies growing up with that over their heads! (They have me to deal with and that’s enough for anyone.) You are pretty safe with Little Miss Muffet, a rhyme about Patience Muffet created by her father, who was a bug scientist before the 16th century. Not a big, giant, racist murdering spider, either. Just a simple little spider that was a little curious about why a child (or anyone, for that matter), would want to consume some curds and whey.

Three Little Kittens is relatively safe also, with its three kittens who misplaced their mittens and in a fit of anger their mother withholds their pie. Clearly a case of abuse, but at least there’s no beheadings.

Singing to my grandchildren has suddenly become more complicated than it was before Bill blatantly shattered my nap time ritual. I will have to find new material to usher the babies into lullaby land.  Since most nursery rhymes are centuries old, I will probably have to resort to the music of my time—my time being the 70s and 80s. I may have to rethink that, though. I am not sure my kids would appreciate me singing songs like “Do ya think I’m sexy” (Rod Stewart) or “Physical,” (Olivia Newton John). Maybe I should just stick to singing about Miss Muffet.

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Jinx Beshears Jinx Beshears is a southern transplant to North Idaho, and shares her confusion with the Pacific Northwest Lifestyle in her column, Jinxed. When not writing, or living, her outlandish stories, she's generally lost somewhere in the mountains with her dog, Aspen.

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