When you were young, you were probably fussy from time to time. Most babies are. How do tired parents get fussy babies to sleep? Often the answer is to sing them a sweet lullaby. Do you remember any lullabies your family members sang to you when you were little?
Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetops,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
Wait…what? Have you ever really thought about the lyrics to this legendary lullaby? Fortunately, most babies are too young to understand the meaning of the words. If they could understand them, they'd probably be horrified.
Think about it. You're in a cradle up high in a tree on a windy day? Who thought that was a good idea? Then the branch breaks and you and the cradle fall to the ground? Could you even survive such a drop?
"Rock-A-Bye Baby" has a long and interesting history. There are several theories about its meaning, but no one is really sure exactly what the song means or how it came to be.
The popular lullaby was first printed in 1765 in Mother Goose's Melody. Some historians believe it was written in response to King James II's conversion to Catholicism. He had a son in 1688 and many feared his heir would lead to a Catholic dynasty in England.
According to this political theory, the lyrics of "Rock-A-Bye Baby" were a death wish directed at the infant son of King James II, hoping he would die and be replaced by a Protestant king. Others speculate the wind represents the Protestant movement, the breaking bough represents the Stuart monarchy, and the baby in danger is England herself.
Others believe the lyrics came from a woman named Betty Kenny, who lived with her husband, Luke, and their eight children in a 2,000-year-old yew tree in a place called Shining Cliff Woods in Derbyshire, England. According to legend, Betty used a hollowed-out branch of the tree as a cradle to rock her children to sleep.
Some people think the lullaby originated in the United States. For example, some believe the pilgrims wrote the lyrics when they witnessed Native Americans place their babies in birch-bark cradles high in trees to rock them to sleep. Others think the lyrics were written by Davy Crockett's relative, Effie, while she was babysitting.
Are any of these theories correct? No one knows. Many people believe it's just a simple rhyme meant to teach a practical lesson. As the editors of Mother Goose's Melody commented on the lyrics, they could be nothing more than "a warning to the proud and ambitious, who climb [too] high that [they] generally fall at last."