In Praise of Nursery Songs

Part 3 in a series on Musical Culture.

After our summer with Ken Myers, I knew that when I became a parent, I would raise my children within a musical heritage. I planned to immerse my first child in beautiful music: I played my piano to her when I was still pregnant, gave birth with “Bach for Bedtime” in the background, and sang canticles for her earliest lullabies. Kids’ music didn’t play any part in my plans, but my child seemed to have a different view.

In the car, she heard my music – and cried her lungs out. Then one magical day, I discovered that she was quiet and content if I turned on Elizabeth Mitchell (a lovely-voiced children’s folk singer). It was a revelation. Soon after, I started taking her to this wonderful library program called “Mother Goose on the Loose,” which adored. Every day she asked to “go sing songs at the library.” I noticed that the parents also seemed to love to sing these silly simple songs – it felt both home-like and fresh.

Then one day as we played “Pat-a-Cake” at home for the hundredth time, I realized that I had never thought about its origins. When I learned that the first recorded instance was in 1698, I told everyone I knew. Here I had been lamenting a lack of musical heritage, while I was passing down folk music without even knowing it. These silly songs were part of our folk culture. Natural cultural transmission was still happening under my nose, and I was part of it!

I learned that “Childlore” is a whole field of study – not just something trivial to be taken for granted. Did you know the origins of “Humpty Dumpty” have to do with brandy boiled with ale, as well as a term for a clumsy and short person, and a cannon that sat in a church tower in the English civil war? That “Aiken Drum” probably originated in a Jacobite battle song? That “Mary had a Little Lamb” is based upon a true story of a girl named Mary Sawyer who kept a pet lamb (and that it is the first instance of recorded verse, recorded by Thomas Edison on the phonograph)? And, despite what we’ve all heard, “Ring Around the Rosy” is not actually about the Black Death (though its origins are still disputed).

Now, I know that just because something is old doesn’t mean that it necessarily has merit. But in the case of nursery songs, it does mean that they are shared. My grandmother sits on the floor with my daughters, her great-granddaughters, and sings the “Eensy Weensy Spider.” Though we have lost so much of our musical culture, we still have this: my daughters can share music with their great-grandmother and echo an experience that could have taken place with her grandmother, eighty years earlier.

In his book Ten Ways to Ruin the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen wonders whether today’s college students have enough of the basic experiences of life — an engrained understanding of the natural world – to be able to know and love the great classics of literature. Perhaps it is the same with music; the highest cannot stand without the lowest. To love the musical language of Bach and Beethoven and Brahms, a child should first be enculturated in the earliest babblings of musical culture. Nowadays, I don’t roll my eyes at singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” for the hundredth time – in fact, it feels pretty significant.

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