When it comes to old nursery rhymes, stories and singing games, most of us adults remember a lot more than we think we do. Teaching these traditions to our children and grandchildren is a wonderful way to bond and teach them about the past. But how much do we know about the stories behind the beloved tales?
The words to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" were the first ever recorded on Thomas Edison's phonograph.
Queen Mary I, "Bloody" Mary, tortured Protestants and burned them at the stake. Quite contrary, indeed!
The "blind mice" were a trio of Protestant bishops who were executed for plotting to kill Queen Mary.
Some theorize that "Little Boy Blue" was created and used as propaganda to bring down an unpopular member of Henry the Eighth's court, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.
"Jack Sprat" is reputed to be a stand-in for King Charles I, who was "lean" after Parliament refused to finance his war on Spain. His queen, Henrietta Maria, imposed an illegal war tax (creating more "fat") once he'd angrily dissolved Parliament.
"Little Miss Muffet" was a real girl named Patience Muffat, whose father was a famous entomologist. One of his spiders escaped, and the rest is history.
"Jack and Jill" refers to the first actions in the French Revolution against the aristocracy and monarchy, in which Louis XVI "lost his crown" (first symbolically, then literally). Jill -- Marie Antoinette -- soon followed suit. Gruesome!
Among all these tales of uprisings, you might assume that "Humpty Dumpty" was one king or another, but in fact he was a large-bellied cannon that stood on a wall in the town of Colchester during the English Civil War. Eventually, the Roundheads destroyed the wall, bringing down Humpty Dumpty and leaving that part of town undefended.
"Rock-A-Bye Baby" refers to a family who lived in Derbyshire in the 1700s. Their house was formed by the wood of a 2,000-year-old yew tree: a literal treehouse!
"Georgie Porgie" refers to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham in the early 17th century. Among his lovers were King James I and France's Queen Anne of Austria, a notorious affair that is also a plotpoint in Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers".
The mission of the British Society for Nursery Rhyme Reform was to protect innocent children from the hidden (and not-so hidden) dark sides of their favorite songs.
On closer reading, the familiar version with "three men in a tub" actually doesn't sound so innocent. But the original version involved "three maids," an apparent reference to the traveling peep shows that were common in England for centuries.
Lucy Locket was apparently an 18th-century London prostitute who had a well-known beef with fellow prostitute Kitty.
Two women sued Southwest Airlines in 2009 because a flight attendant sang part of "Eeny Meenie Minie Moe" over the plane's loudspeaker. They claimed to have suffered severe emotional distress because the original version of the rhyme used a racial slur in place of the "tiger" that gets caught by its toe. (The suit was not successful.)
"Ten Little Indians": a wholesome, child-friendly tune about the violent deaths of members of a single racial group.
Don't let the sing-songy playground chant fool you -- "See Saw, Margery Daw" references crushing poverty and possibly prostitution.
Legend has it that Sarah Josepha Hale wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb" after Sawyer and her lamb made a scene at school.
The patriotic American ditty was actually a British song disparaging dumb colonists who would put feathers in their caps and think they were as stylish as Italians.
There's Henry the Eighth and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey again. Apparently, Old Mother Hubbard is Wolsey, who couldn't persuade the Pope to grant the annulment from Katherine of Aragon. The cupboard is the Catholic Church, the bone is the annulment, and the "poor dog" is the king.
Jack and John/Johnny have long been derogatory shorthand for Englishmen.
For whatever reason, the nursery-rhymes that started in 18th-century England had major staying power.
"Tommy Thumb's Song Book" was published around 1744.
Mother Goose first appeared in Charles Perrault's fairy-tale book in 1695.
The general consensus is that "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" was inspired by the Great Custom wool tax of 1275.
It's certainly not obvious to a modern listener, but "ladybird" is an English Catholic, forbidden to practice her religion.
There's a surprising amount of old-timey drinking slang in "Pop Goes the Weasel."
"Little Jack Horner" refers to a bribery scandal which resulted in multiple deaths and the destruction of a whole abbey.
The female inmates at England's Wakefield Prison sang a tune as they exercised around a mulberry tree -- it eventually became the wholesome children's ditty "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush."
"Ring Around the Rosie" is often said to be about the Great Plague of London (or various other disease outbreaks), but Snopes says it's a straight-up "play-party" song.
The rarely recited second verse of the classic is "Rain, rain go to Spain/Never show your face again."