The Truth About ‘Rock-A-Bye Baby’s’ Dark Lyrics

Ah, “Rock-a-bye Baby.” The most classic nursery rhyme of all time. After all, nothing lulls a cute, innocent little baby to sleep like everyone’s favorite tune about reckless infant endangerment gone awry, right?

Now, nursery rhymes often have surprisingly violent lyrics, but if “Rock-a-bye Baby” is to be believed, not only is somebody climbing up trees and sticking their babies on the highest branches, but they’re also watching as the cradle drops, and then writing songs about it. It’s utterly bizarre, and while “Rock-a-bye Baby” will probably permanently remain embedded in pop culture (after all, it works), the exact origins of this song aren’t easily pinpointed. 

Rock-a-bye Baby might've been inspired by a woman who lived in a tree

If you’re hoping to figure out the name and address of the person who first wrote this somewhat creepy song … well, good luck with that time machine. First of all, the oldest known appearance of this rhyme in print (originally named “Hush-a-bye Baby”) occurred in the 1765 publication of Mother Goose’s Melody, in London, according to the McFarland Historical Society. It seemingly wasn’t until the 1800s where this little poem gained its official melody, which then thoroughly embedded itself in American culture.

The source of inspiration for this rhyme is, unfortunately, unclear. Perhaps the most prominent theory, according to Country Images Magazine, is that the rhyme goes back to a 1700s woman named Betty Kenny, who lived in the U.K.’s Shining Cliff Woods with her husband, Luke, and eight children. Betty and Luke used a 2000-year-old yew tree as their home, creating a hut beneath the tree’s branches and using its massive trunk to support the house. This structure must’ve certainly looked quite fairy tale-esque, and many believe that she lulled her eight babies to sleep by placing them in the tree’s massive, hollowed out branches. Now, that’s certainly far safer than the lullaby sounds, though it’s easy to see why it could’ve amazed people enough to write a rhyme about it. 

Many other possible 'Rock-a-bye Baby' origin stories exist

There are several other theories regarding the song’s origins, as Wonderopolis points out. Some believe it may be an allegory for the political resentment of certain English-folk in the 1600s, who were fearful of King James II’s conversion to Catholicism, and may have hoped that his infant son would die (I.E., falling from a treetop) and lead to a Protestant king taking over. Dark stuff, for a dark rhyme, but perhaps a bit too convoluted to be the true story.  

Alternatively, some people theorize that the nursery rhyme originated with the pilgrims, who were astonished by the unique, fascinating cradleboards used by some Native American women. These cradles kept their babies snug, safe, and upright. Many women would carry these cradles either on their backs or by hand, but when they needed to put the babies down for a moment, according to the Museum of the Red River, the cradleboards could be hung from a tree.   

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