Behind the history and meaning of the nursery rhyme, “Rock-a-bye Baby”

Behind the history and meaning of the nursery rhyme, “Rock-a-bye Baby”

It is funny. When you delve into the lyrics of a particular song, you might be surprised by what they say.

For example, one of the sweetest-sounding songs we hear as children is the nursery rhyme, “Rock-a-bye Baby.” But looking at the words, on their own, without any melody or soft tone, the song is apparently morbid and strange.

But is there more than meets the eye? What is the origin and meaning of the song, also known by some as “Hush-a-bye Baby”? Let’s find out the meaning below.


Many believe that the first appearance of the rhyme and lullaby occurred in 1765 in The Mother Goose Melodywhich was later reprinted in Boston in 1785. While no copies of the first edition are known, a 1791 edition has the following handwriting:

Hush-a-by baby in the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock;
When the branch breaks, the cradle will fall,
Falls baby, crib and all.

In that publication, the rhyme is accompanied by the note: “This may serve as a warning to the proud and ambitious, who climb so high that they usually fall in the end.”

modern version

More modern versions of the song have been renamed from “Hush-a-bye Baby” to “Rock-a-bye Baby”. That name change was first recorded in 1805 in the collection of Benjamin Tabart, Songs for the Nursery.

Today, the lyrics are better known as:

Rock a bye baby in the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the branch breaks, the cradle will fall,
And the baby will come down, crib and all.

In 1887, the British newspaper, The times, included an announcement of a London performance by a group of musicians who were to play the “new” American song, “Rock-a-bye”. Later, an article in The New York Timesin 1891, it referenced the song being played in a New Jersey parade.

Today, the song is sung in daycare centers and by parents of young children everywhere.

Meanings and final thoughts

The great thing about lullabies and lullabies like this one is that they are so memorable because in a way they are so simple. Simple language, simple ideas. But somehow they linger in the collective consciousness.

But why?

One reason is that, because they are so simple, any number of meanings can be applied to them. “Jack and Jill,” for example, could be about the price of beer going up and down, or it could be about the human life cycle. “Rock-a-bye Baby” is no different.

Over time, some have thought that the lullaby is about the Egyptian deity Horus, god of royalty and the sky. Others have claimed that it is a corruption of the French melody, “He bas! là le loup!” (Quiet! There’s the wolf!) Some have thought it a reference to British colonists who noted that Native American women comforted their children by rocking them in birch bark cradles.

But these specific ideas miss the most important point: rhymes mean something and nothing at the same time. However, if you ask us, the most essential reading of the nursery rhyme has to do with living in front of the child to whom it is being sung.

A young baby has, presumably, decades and decades to go. A whole life to live. In this way, they are on top of the world. Young as can be. There is no way to go but down. Thus, with the trials and tribulations of life, comes the “rocking” of the cradle. So when it’s his turn, the end must come and the big fall.

But even if this was not the intent of the song writer, it still applies because the nursery rhyme is very simple and direct, using very common nouns and verbs. It is the beauty of a melody that is refined over the centuries.

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