Grandma Becky is sitting with Granddaughter Adelaide in a chair. Grandchild is operating on her default setting of constant chatter, so Grandma begins singing “Rock-a-bye Baby.” This causes Grandchild to stop momentarily and listen.
“Sing it again, Grandma,” she says as she climbs off Grandma’s lap, and that’s what Grandma does.
“Rock-a-bye baby in the tree top/when the wind blows the cradle will rock/when the bough breaks …” At this point Grandchild who has been swaying to the song begins bowing down from her waist while keeping a remarkably straight back. Grandma proceeds to use this as a teachable moment (It is educator in her.) and explains to the 3-year-old that the “bough” in the song is another word with a meaning different from the “bow” she is demonstrating.
When Becky gets home she tells me this story, and we both start wondering about the word “bough.” I look it up because we are curious and because I am a former English teacher. “Bough,” it turns out, can be traced to the 11th century and comes from Middle English where it meant “shoulder” as well as its current meaning of “a large or main branch of a tree.”
“Bow,” the word Adelaide confused, means “to bend” and also dates from Middle English. Curiously, the word that is spelled the same but pronounced with a long O and means “weapon or knot of ribbon” has essentially the same lineage as Adelaide’s bow.
After I cleared up that question, I started pondering a different, more troubling one: Why was the baby in a cradle up in a tree where it clearly could — and later in the rhyme did — fall?
Turns out this is one of those folk curiosities whose roots are lost in the mists of history. Though I couldn’t pin down a documented origin story, I came upon some interesting theories.
One of my favorites is that the lyrics were written by a Mayflower Pilgrim who observed Native Americans hanging birch-bark cradles in trees, where the wind would gently rock their babies to sleep. Another legend traces it to an English family who lived in a huge treehouse high in a yew tree, while one author reaches back to ancient Egypt, where the baby symbolizes the god Horus.
The first printed version of the rhyme appeared in 1765 in “Mother Goose’s Melody.” A footnote explains it is a moral lesson: “This may serve as a Warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they fall at last.” Well, it’s no secret that nursery rhymes and other children’s literature often contain moral and ethical lessons, so I suppose we must consider a variety of interpretations.
Even interpretations that seem, on first glance, pretty far out. For example, the Medical Obstetrics Theory which postulates that the the rocking of the baby refers to the movement of the baby in amniotic fluid of the mother’s womb with the umbilical cord representing the tree and, well, you can check your medical textbook and take it from there.
Political interpretations often find their way into “innocent” children’s songs and poems. Such an interpretation holds that “Rock-a-Bye Baby” (or “Hush-a-Bye, Baby” as it was first sung.) can be understood as a reference to the events of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. In this reading, the “baby” is the Catholic heir of King James II and the “wind” is the political wind blowing from the Netherlands bringing Protestant William of Orange who would eventually depose the reigning monarch.
You know, it might be interesting to hear a modern children’s lullaby about today’s political intrigues. On second thought, maybe it wouldn’t.
I’m glad Adelaide likes the old nursery rhymes, songs and lullabies. She seems to accept them at face value rather than attaching some deeper meaning. I think that is the way I prefer to hear them, as well.