Way back in the 1980s Congress argued over whether or not CD artwork jackets should have Parental Advisory warnings. Fueled by Tipper Gore and myths of backward records playing satanic messages, Parental Advisory stickers still exist today.
But hidden meanings aren’t all doom and gloom, and sometimes they’re not hidden at all. In fact, some of the most popular songs in history have hidden meanings and don’t come with a Parental Advisory sticker.
We’re talking of course, about children’s songs. Some of those innocent nursery rhymes and jingles have not so innocent meanings. Ready to see what we’re talking about?
We’re breaking down the top five popular children’s songs with different meanings than you thought.
Everyone’s favorite ode to failing architecture isn’t about architecture at all.
London Bridge is falling down, Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
Except London Bridge isn’t actually falling down. Rather, the bridge is perfectly stable thanks to the entombed child that’s keeping watch over the structure. Sound crazy? Check this out.
Immurement is the ritual of entombing someone within a structure to ensure the stability of that structure. Think of the entombed as a sort of guardian angel, but disregard the fact that they had no choice.
While it sounds too crazy to have any basis in history, there’s actually recorded record of immurement in European structures including castles, churches, and yes, also bridges.
And what seals this song’s fate? Children often sing London Bridge while joining hands to form an arch, running underneath the arch, and lowering their hands to capture an unlucky child “inside” the bridge.
Jimmy Crack Corn
Sometimes even children’s songs fall on the wrong side of the race issue when you’re dealing with America’s less than spotless history. Though let us preface, this doesn’t mean we have mobs of racist toddlers running rampant.
Jimmy “cracking corn” isn’t about “cracking corn” at all, and doesn’t involve anyone named Jimmy. There’s an extra line that we’ve omitted over the years; “My master’s gone away.”
The rhyme is actually a song written by a slave who follows his master, shooing blue flies away from the master’s horse. When a fly bites the horse it bucks and throws the master to the ground, killing him.
The slave then throws a party. Yes, really. The original lyrics are “Jim crack corn,” “Jim” is shorthand for “cheap” and “crack corn” means corn whiskey. So translating the lyrics gives us:
Cheap whiskey and I don’t care,
Cheap whiskey and I don’t care,
Cheap whiskey and I don’t care,
My master’s gone away.
The now freed slave is throwing a party.
Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush
This song has many variations, including some with detailed instructions about hygiene. The text we’ll use as today’s version starts like this:
Here we go ’round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go ’round the mulberry bush
So early in the morning.
While running around a mulberry bush could probably entertain the average child, it’s much less entertaining when you’re stuck in a prison for crimes your mother committed.
When a mid-1800s prison in Wakefield, England added women to its population their children came with them. During the day the female inmates sang this song while they ran around a mulberry bush, with their children, for exercise.
The hygiene and chores bit comes from the fact that Wakefield prison was built on low, wet ground. Making it a perfect breeding ground for cholera and typhoid. “Brush your hair” and “wash your faces” originated as ways to stave off fatal diseases.
Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo
Eenie, meenie, miney, mo is the only solution when you’re a child that can’t decide something. But the solution isn’t nearly as innocent as it seems. Rather, it’s actually pretty racist.
The original lyrics come in two different versions, but for decorum’s sake, we’ll omit the extremely racist parts.
Eenie, meenie, minie mo. Catch a (use your imagination) by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eenie, meenie, minie mo.
Catch a (again, imagination time) by his toe/ If he hollers make him pay/Twenty dollars every day.
In its original form it’s most certainly not meant for children. It was instead written as a not so charming rhyme about catching runaway slaves.
Black plaintiffs actually sued Southwest Airlines when a flight attendant used the rhyme regarding seat selection, but the plaintiffs lost. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
This rhyme is dying out, which is ironic considering it’s nowhere near as offensive as our last song. If you haven’t heard of Mary, Mary, ask your parents. It goes like:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
Mary seems pretty sweet until you realize she’s actually a caricature of Mary I, Queen of England. At the time, the oldest daughter of Henry VIII had ascended the throne and made some sweeping changes to the country.
“How does your garden grow” is a jab at her infertility, while “quite contrary” about how she pushed to rollback her father’s efforts at converting England to Protestantism.
“Silver bells and cockle shells” probably refers to torture devices used in Mary’s crusade to convert England back to Catholicism.
England didn’t like Mary so much that their protest tune persists until today. Regardless of your opinion on Mary I, that’s a pretty impressive legacy.
Bonus Song: Puff the Magic Dragon
We’re having so much fun talking about children’s songs that we’re adding a bonus song; Puff the Magic Dragon. Everyone’s favorite dragon (sorry, Drogon) allegedly isn’t named Puff and doesn’t live by the sea.
As the song goes:
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honahlee
Little Jackie paper loved that rascal puff
And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff oh
Puff the Magic Dragon, supposedly, is a euphemism for smoking marijuana. Little Jackie paper means rolling papers, and sealing wax refers to sealing a joint. There’s no proof for this rhyme’s alternate meaning, but we’ll speculate anyway.
is fun when it’s nice outside
and it’s especially nice with rolling papers
just don’t forget to seal your joint before you smoke
While we’re probably wrong, it’s always fun to speculate.
Popular Children’s Songs Today
So there you have it. Five popular children’s songs that have less than pure beginnings. While we sing them innocently, it’s important to remember that history is usually crueler than it seems.
After all, the people in power write history. We can only wonder what little rhymes of today might turn into children’s tunes in the future.
Have any more songs you know about and would like to share? Shoot us an email and let us know. We’re always on the lookout for new and interesting facts.