Drinking Songs

The Secret Liquor History of Nursery Rhymes

It turns out that many common fairy tales and fables have very boozy roots.

Nursery rhymes, fables and traditional folk tales all share a close kinship with drunkenness.

I mean, obviously, right? They reduce the complications of life to an appealing, elemental simplicity. They create worlds in which inanimate objects miraculously develop the power of speech. And they all favor sing-song diction and attempts to find rhymes where none by rights should exist. (“Beer before liquor, never been sicker,” etc.).

And there’s also the matter of occult transmogrification—one drinks a miracle potion and morphs into something else. The weak become strong; the unattractive become glamorous. Benjamin Franklin asked in 1722, “What pleasure can the drunkard have in the reflection, that, while in his cups, he retain’d only the shape of a man, and acted the part of a beast?” Plenty of pleasure, according to history.

But those are just the surface connections. Scholars who are pay attention to such things suspect many treasured rhymes and tales, not surprisingly, began steeped in drink, and only later cleaned up and got all snugly with the kids on the divan in the living room.

Every culture developed its own fables, folk stories, and rhyming tales—from Aesop to the Brothers Grimm to Japanese folk heroes like Momotarō (“Peach Boy”). These arose as ancient entertainment that also helped kids decipher and make sense of the world around them, allowing them to enter fantasy in order to work out the mechanics of reality.

However, childhood as we know it didn’t actually exist until around the 19th century. Prior to the Victorian era, at least in the West, kids were considered scale-model adults, and didn’t need much in the way of special coddling. (The term “nursery rhyme” wasn’t actually coined until 1806.)

So nursery rhymes were more, well, realistic, and tended to be untempered for tender ears. They might involve grisly death or rampant terror. Part of being a scaled-down adult was listening to big adult stories—it was assumed that kids could handle the injustice and the horror that sometimes invaded everyday life. Nobody was slapping PG ratings on tales or making their kids go to their room when Uncle Odysseus called upon his muse and started singing about the big war, yet again. The tales collected by the Brothers Grimm were, as has been oft pointed out, exceedingly grim as originally told.

Marian Whitehead, a British scholar of language development, has noted that “the best-known traditional rhymes still have reminders of their origins in ballads, folk songs, church rituals and prayers, drinking songs, street cries, wars, rebellions and romantic lyrics [and often]… reflect a world of rough courtships, whippings, and heavy drinking, and no amount of Victorian ‘cleaning up’ has fully disguised this.”

Even the most benign nursery rhymes likely took root in darker soils. Take “Mary Mary Quite Contrary,” which dates to 1774.

“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells, and cockle shells,

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And pretty maids all in a row.”

Sounds bucolic, no?—a lovely garden with its cockle shells (whatever they may be) and silver bells. But a favored theory is that this referred to Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VIII. She was also known as Bloody Mary (no relation to the drink) for her fondness for executing and torturing Protestants. The cockleshells (genital torture devices) and silver bells (thumbscrews) kept company with all “pretty maids all in a row,” which may well have been guillotines, once called “the maiden.” Sleep well, children!

Many rhymes and the like are believed to have their origins linked directly with drink, often through ballads and songs whose transmission vector was the tavern.

Among those with a damp past is Jack and Jill, who for unexplained reasons when up a hill to fetch a pail of water before their tragic denouement.

So what was really going on? One theory is that this rhyme had to do with a liquor tax—Charles I had sought to increase the tax on liquor, which was rejected by Parliament, so instead he issued what today would be called an executive order: He reduced the official measures of half- and quarter-pints, effectively raising the tax anyway. These measures were colloquially called “jacks” and “gills.” And the crown? Barware was marked with a line and small crown insignia showing the official measure—all of which would have to be replaced, resulting in many broken crowns. While some may quibble, it’s more interesting than kids with Dutch bobs falling down a hill for no discernible reason.

Now let us consider “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

“Half a pound of tuppenny rice,

Half a pound of treacle.

That’s the way the money goes,

Pop! goes the weasel.

Up and down the city road

In and out the Eagle.

That’s the way the money goes,

Pop! goes the weasel.”

The refrain is thought to derive from Cockney rhyming slang—“pop” was the word for pawn, and “weasel” was a coat (via “weasel and stoat”). The “eagle” was a reference to Eagle Tavern in North London, a popular destination at the time. So the rhyme shifts from a silly rodent doing silly if somewhat creepy things, to an alcoholic pawning off family belongings to get his next drink. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.

Other connections exist, if sometimes glancingly. Humpty Dumpty—who was apparently too unstable to sit on a wall—was also “the name of a vile-sounding drink of ale boiled with brandy,” writes Robert Amwood in his book about pubs, which goes a long way toward explaining the aforesaid instability.

Old King Cole was derived from a popular drinking song: “He called for his pipe, And he called for his bowl, And he called for his fiddlers three!” Punch bowl? Likely, as he already had his pipe.

“Diddle, Diddle (The Kind Country Lovers)” was originally a song about drinking and laying with a maiden, and some have suggested a hint of bestiality (“That she may drink Diddle, diddle/When she is dry/Because she lov’d Diddle, diddle/My Dog and I.”)

Up until the 17th and 18th century, rhyme and fables were part of a rich oral tradition, changing generation by generation. They were snared by pioneering folklorists like the Brothers Grimm in Germany and serious compilers of nursery rhymes in England starting about two centuries ago. But even thus captured, they evolved according to social mores.

After childhood was codified by the Victorians, the tales were found to be overly bawdy and hyper-realistic, so were toned down and softened. The drinking and violence moved into the background, often behind a scrim of metaphor. It was like R-rated movies dubbed and cut for the airlines. Nobody swears! Everything is fine! Every ending is happy!

And given their lack of copyright protections, they continue to evolve and change. “What do with do with a drunken sailor” was revised to “grumpy pirate” in some British compilations recently to shield innocent children from the prospect of recreational drink.

And in northern California a recovering alcoholic songwriter in the 1990s, who performed under the stage name of “Sober Goose,” rewrote many lyrics to showcase the dangers of drink. For instance:

“Georgie Porgie, ginger and rye,

Kissed the girls when he was high.

All the girls ’round him would swarm.

But Georgie Porgie could not perform.”

Wittingly or not, she was bringing the nursery rhyme back to its origins.