Revising Nursery Rhymes

Updated on June 27, 2013
F.B. asks from Kew Gardens, NY
21 answers

Some feedback to a recent question brought up the topic of "black sheep". I've come to learn that the classic- "ba ba black sheep" is now sometimes revised to "ba ba rainbow sheep?" If so, why?

Also, one of our kid's fisher price toys, sings "Jack and Jill went up the hill to see their favorite colors, the grass was green, the sky was blue, the shiny sun was yellow". What's wrong with fetching a pail or water?

Hubs, is rather old fashioned, and prefers we use the classic versions. Me, I'm nostalgic for the classic version, but if, unbeknownst to me, they are cause for offense, I'll certainly use the more p.c. form. Last thing we need, is down the line for DS to be innocently singing a nursery ryhme and be accused of racism or worse.

Thanks for the insight.
F. B.

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answers from Washington DC on

Ring around the rosie (those infected with the plague developed pustules with red rings around them)

Pocket full of posie (those infected as well as others would carry posies in their pocket to cover their own smell/that of the dead from the plague)

Ashes to ashes (the bodies were cremated)

We all fall down

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answers from San Francisco on

Maybe some racist people think there's something "wrong" with sheep being black (?) Where did you hear that one? I've never heard that. Some sheep ARE black.
And it sounds like the Jack and Jill rhyme was was just altered to teach colors. It's no different than altering a recipe. I think you're reading WAY too much into it. Stories and songs change over the generations, there's no hidden agenda.

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answers from Houston on

Andrew Dice Clay revised them years ago… worth a listen.. :-)

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answers from Honolulu on

There is no end to things like this, right?
.... all I know is, I grew up with all of these classic old fashioned rhymes and songs. And gee whiz, I grew up normal and not damaged and didn't turn out psychotic.

And what about that other song (which is from a Mother Goose melody originally):

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Here's a link about its history:

I mean, when my son was a baby, I used to sing that song to him before I put him in the crib. Everyday and night. I must've sang that song to him from birth, up to about 7 months old.
He ain't scarred for life. He asked me when he got older, about what the song means. I said I don't know! Its just a silly rhyming song from long time ago. No biggie.

And what is wrong... with the Jack and Jill song and fetching a pail of water? Ditto.

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answers from Columbus on

We sing them as the classic versions. And I try to explain some of the meanings now that my LO is getting to the age to understand them.

I actually view them as teaching cultural history.

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answers from Dallas on

I knew all the nursery rhymes and I'm not scarred for life. I know them the way they are. Like I have time to remember the reworded versions.

*Sheep don't have a race. They have colored wool.

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answers from New York on

OMG we lived in such a screwed up world. The classic nursery rhymes have been around for 100 years. People say they are violent and scarey.
Millions of us have been raised with them and we all turned out fine. Leave well enough alone.

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answers from Boston on

Part of the problem with "black" connoting "bad" is not new, and part of it MAY be in response to the recent survey of preschoolers showing them 2 identical dolls - identical except one is white and one is black. When asked which one is good or loved, they chose white. When asked which one is bad or not loved, they chose black. The most disturbing thing was that the black preschoolers not only chose the black doll as the one that was bad, they identified themselves as looking that that doll and felt that they themselves were bad. So the idea of values being ingrained at an early age is very front and center. While black sheep wool might have been valuable at one time, certainly "the black sheep of the family" is not considered a compliment.

It's not always about being politically correct. It's about being sensitive, and about being willing to look at long-held beliefs.

A lot of nursery rhymes are scary or cruel (Jack and Jill get hurt - there's nothing wrong with the pail of water per se, it's that the rhyme is made with Jack falling down and breaking his crown, and Jill coming tumbling after. Again, with huge problems with kids getting concussed during sports, head injuries are on people's minds and they don't want to be dismissive, I think). A lot are based on old superstitions and unrealistic fears (same as saying "God bless you" after a sneeze). A lot are very sexist.

As noted below, "ring around the rosey" dealt with the plague. Others have to do with sudden death - "rock-a-by baby" or "humpty dumpty" for example.

Same goes for expressions we used to use and don't anymore because we know what they mean: To "gyp" someone comes from the idea of Gypsies as thieves (and since they are currently discriminated against, it's sensitive), "Indian giver" has long since fallen out of favor, and so on. Of course, "rule of thumb" is not used by many many people because it dates from it being legal for a man to beat his wife as long as the stick was no bigger in diameter than his thumb. With domestic violence continuing to be very high, a lot of people try to be more aware of antiquated ideas and not perpetuate those images.

So, with so many wonderful books and rhymes and stories abounding in children's libraries and even on public TV, and with many other old standards like Dr. Seuss available, it would seem we could make some different choices. What people do in their own homes is one thing, but what is done in schools and preschools needs to be sensitive to all of the children there and to teach values.

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answers from Houston on

I taught my kids "Little B. Fufu", so obviously I don't care about PC. I like the classics. =)

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answers from Reading on

Like many nursery rhymes, Jack and Jill becomes quite violent in the end:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.[1]

Up Jack got, and home did trot,
As fast as he could caper;
To old Dame Dob, who patched his nob
With vinegar and brown paper.[1]

When Jill came in how she did grin
To see Jack's paper plaster;
Mother vexed did whip her next
For causing Jack's disaster.[3]

Changing Baa, Baa, Black Sheep may be an overabundance of concern, or it may simply be for fun. I don't believe there is any racism in the original version, although many, many original rhymes are racist, violent, sexist, and totally inappropriate by today's standards. And really, that's what matters to most - today's standards. While Black Sheep may mean nothing wrong, if people today are apt to take it wrong, manufacturers may change it. But the truth of the matter is, nursery rhymes have ALWAYS changed with the times. None of them used today are in their original form.

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answers from Colorado Springs on

People are always changing the words to those things. I think it has to do with political correctness in many cases. For anyone who exclaims to you, "(Gasp!) You called that sheep BLACK!" Or "(Gasp!) You let Red Riding Hood be eaten! You'll damage your child's psyche! And you're demeaning WOLVES!" you just need a good snappy comeback.

Apparently many nursery rhymes had political implications when they were first devised, and they were NOT for the nursery. But those implications have disappeared after all these years or centuries. I think most children consider them nonsense rhymes. The Brothers Grimm liked to tell *scary* tales; perhaps they are the precursors to writers of today's zombie movies?

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answers from Denver on

I think them being changed to be pc is ridiculous. But, I am also left to wonder if they are changing them due to common core standards. They want everyone to hear the collective versions. My 5 year old was playing on starfall and a lot of the stuff on there has been changed to align with common core. All the more reason to make sure you hang onto and read the classic version to your kiddos.

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answers from Baton Rouge on

Many of the "classic" versions simply aren't relevant today.
Ring Around the Rosie, for example, was about the Black Plague.
London Bridge is about children being buried in the bridge's foundations
Humpty Dumpty is abut King Richard III being thrown from his horse.
Mary Mary Quite Contrary refers to Mary, Queen of Scots and her habit of beheading those who pissed her off.

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answers from Norfolk on

People who are perpetually concerned with being politically correct have dirty minds.
They have to know an alternate meaning for a word and then go on to assume that it's the only meaning and then they conclude the word should never ever be used anywhere for any reason.
Which is a total crock of manure.
Black is a perfectly good naturally occurring color.
There is nothing racist about it unless it's applied in a negative fashion against people.

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answers from Salt Lake City on

Ring around the rosies was not about the bubonic plague. That has been passed around so much people are taking it for fact. As Mamazita says nursery rhymes are changed all the time so how was ring around the rosies not changed for 600 years when the bubonic plague first hit England and why did that interpretation not come until after WWII? Not the Snopes is the end all and be all of all that is true on the internet, it makes more sense than the bubonic plague theory.
Many nursery rhymes have very gruesome origins. Jack refers to King Louis and Marie Antoinette. The first four lines are original, the others are to soften it for the children. Mary, Mary Quite Contrary is generally taken to refer to Queen Mary I aka Bloody Mary daughter of King Henry VIII who actually killed more people than his daughter did. Old Mother Hubbard is about how King Henry VIII couldn't get a divorce from the Catholic church-which is why he created the Church of England.
That being said, who cares! I was read nursery rhymes when I was a child. I read them to my child. This version of Jack and Jill seems to be revised to teach children colors. The Black sheep one, I don't get. I don't see anything wrong with being the black sheep of the family. They are the ones that are different. I like being different. I don't create controversy but I live my life different than my family. I don't think any nursery rhyme should cause offense to anyone. And anyway offense cannot be given, it has to be taken.

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answers from New York on

I think most are fine but many are scary. Like that damn Gingerbread Boy. He's mean and nasty and then gets it in the end when the wolf eats him. And Little Red Riding Hood - I know that one gets changed/edited a lot.

And I do think some are offensive. But the sheep - I think they made it politically correct. Whatever - no harm.

Personally, I like nursery rhymes by Andrew Dice Clay. What, you want an example? Ok, I'll give you the one that I don't think will get pulled:

Little Boy Blue (he needed the money). hehehe!!!!

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answers from Los Angeles on

Well, I think the PC stuff is ridiculous. However, it is possible, that someone owns the rights to the traditional Jack & Jill poem and the Fisher Price refused to pay them money for it. Just a thought.
This is also why you rarely hear the "Happy Birthday" song sung on TV, and even in restaurants. Two old ladies own the rights and most people don't want to pay for it. So, that's why you get all these other funny made up birthday songs.

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answers from Dallas on

I prefer Aesop's and Grimms to Disney. More interesting.
I googled origins of this rhyme here is what was found:

As with many nursery rhymes, attempts have been made to find origins and meanings for the rhyme, most which have no corroborating evidence.[1] Katherine Elwes Thomas in The Real Personages of Mother Goose (1930) suggested that the rhyme referred to resentment at the heavy taxation on wool.[5] This has particularly been taken to refer to the medieval English "Great" or "Old Custom" wool tax of 1275, which survived until the fifteenth century.[1] More recently the rhyme has been connected to the slave trade, particularly in the southern United States.[6] This explanation was advanced during debates over political correctness and the use and reform of nursery rhymes in the 1980s, but has no supporting historical evidence.[7] Rather than being negative, the wool of black sheep may have been prized as it could be made into dark cloth without dyeing.[6]

While many things have a history, I wouldn't stress too much over it. If you really are concerned a quick google and you can decide for you and your family if you want to stick to the original or change it up. :)

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answers from Kansas City on

There will always be someone who gets offended by something!
I think there's plenty of reality in politics to be genuinely offended by, IMO.
But I'm encouraged by the SCOTUS DOMA ruling today!

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answers from Austin on

I like the traditional ones too.. Our daughter liked the traditional ones too.. Then the irreverent parodies.. "The Stinky Cheese man.."

I think some people cannot come up with original stories rhymes etc.. so they retell the traditional ones.


answers from Boise on

Haha I just read the Gingerbread Man to my 3 year old, and I do not remember the fox eating him at the end. she loved the story but it made me a little sad lol

I don't revise them. They are what they are, the only one I can think of that I've changed is "Rock-a-bye-baby" The part where the cradle falls. I changed so the it fell safely into the mothers arms. I just couldn't let the cradle fall into nothing.

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