The Times recently ran a front-page story on the demise of the nursery rhyme: schools are teaching these rhymes less and less apparently, as they are ‘no longer relevant.’
This did make me laugh. At which stage in our history, exactly, was a cow jumping over a moon relevant? Or four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? The wonderful thing about children is that they don’t give half a pound of tuppenny rice for relevance;
what they can recognise – which, sadly, some education experts apparently can’t – is the magic of strange words and bizarre ideas woven together to stretch both their vocabulary and their imaginations. It doesn’t matter that the rhymes make no sense, or refer to a piece of long-forgotten history. My 22 month old grand-daughter has no idea that Rock a Bye Baby may refer to the ousting of James II by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; what she loves is the excitement of ‘when the bough breaks’ in the middle of a lullaby. Or that Ring a Ring a Roses is thought to refer to symptoms of the plague; what matters is that the words rhyme in a satisfying way, you pretend to sneeze and then fall down.
Other rhymes are even more absurd, and impossible to analyse for a hidden meaning, as in Hey diddle diddle and Sing a Song of Sixpence mentioned above. Or how about this one, a favourite of my own children:
There was an old woman tossed up in a basket,
Ninety-nine times as high as the moon.
Where she was going I couldn’t but ask it,
For in her hand she wielded a broom.
‘Old woman, old woman, old woman,’ said I,
‘Where are you going to up so high?’
‘To sweep the cobwebs off the sky!’
‘May I go with you?’ ‘Aye, by and by.’
How wonderful is that image? It literally sends the imagination soaring, all the way to the moon and far, far beyond, through a night sky latticed with cobwebs…
To demand that nursery rhymes be ‘relevant’ when you could offer children such riches feels mean and restricting. And worse. Nursery rhymes are not so different from fairy tales, both in their literary heritage and in their ability to create strange, fantastical worlds. Consider, then, Albert Einstein’s famous advice to parents:
‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’
And – as I know Einstein would have added, had it crossed his mind that it might be necessary – please, please don’t try to make them relevant. Not like a hand-puppet board book, This Little Piggy, recently given to my granddaughter. This version, while using charming finger puppets, has ‘updated’ the classic rhyme for our more sensitive (?) era, destroying meaning and rhythm in one fell swoop:
This little piggy went to market. (Original line, good. From here things go downhill.)
This little piggy stayed home. (Preposition?)
This little piggy had cookies. (What?? Where’s the roast beef?)
This little piggy had fun. (No, he didn’t. He had NONE. Everyone knows this. Line altered presumably to spare children’s distress for a piggy who had nothing to eat. I have news for the publishers: children don’t care. It’s life. They can cope with that.)
This little piggy sang wee wee wee all the way home. (No, he didn’t. He CRIED wee wee wee. He was squealing. That’s what pigs do.)
Which brings me to the many, many books and recordings of nursery rhymes on the market, and a heartfelt plea: your children matter. Don’t give them rubbish. Buy them a book of the stature of The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes by the incomparable Raymond Briggs: a beautifully illustrated collection, including lesser known rhymes such as Charley Barley, Butter and Eggs as well as Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.
And for listening, you can’t do better than Tim Hart’s brilliant folk arrangements Tim Hart and Friends: My Very FavouriteNursery Rhyme Record.
(article first posted on http://www.authorselectric.blogspot.co.uk)