Wednesday 29 May 2013


My sister remarked the other day, as I warbled a classic nursery rhyme in front of our respective kids (at the time they were fighting over who had what and were not at all bothered by my feeble attempt at entertainment) that a lot of the classic nursery rhymes and cartoons are pretty macabre, if not flat out inappropriate for young minds with a propensity for testosterone surges (!). Not only that, but most of the time, we sing these songs and it doesn’t even dawn on us to what the heck we’re singing about.

Case in point, 'Ring-A-Round-The Rosy.' How many of you have sung that little ditty thinking it is a sweet little song where the kids all hold hands and fall in a heap on the ground? What is it really about, you ask (for those of you not in the know)? A sweet little thing called the Bubonic Plague that swept through Europe and claimed millions of victims in a horrifyingly gruesome manner. The opening line, ‘ring-around-a-rosy’ represents the skin lesion that had a reddish ring around it letting you know you were the lucky one to get this death sentence; ‘pocket full of posies’ stood for the fact that doctors and the like used to carry around flowers/herbs they (uselessly) held in front of their noses in hopes of not catching the disease, and the final line, ‘ashes, ashes, we all fall down,’ symbolizes death. Yep, a real uplifting little pop song to sing to the young ones about the positivity of life. Amazing how it became a nursery rhyme in the first place. 

But of course it doesn’t stop there in terms of (ahem) positive messages when it comes to our nursery rhymes. In the song, ‘London Bridges’ the bridge is clearly in need of some serious repair and is eternally falling down, and ‘Rock-a-bye-baby’ is downright twisted in that it is a lullaby where the baby’s cradle is up in a tree (that was not a woman’s decision, I assure you!), and when the cradle rocks, the tree branch breaks and the baby goes hurdling towards the ground. Most parents have a heart attack when their kid rolls off the changing table, can you imagine rejoicing in song about a baby falling out of a two-story tree? The origin of the song is contentious (the historians can’t make up their mind as to who came up with this gem and why) but let’s be frank, those 17th century folk were into some dark stuff.

Then there are the cartoons that many of us grew up on that now upon viewing, one realizes that we were not only watching some violent stuff, but downright racist (see, it’s not only this generation that spews out violence and inappropriate content on television). Take two of my favorites: Tom & Jerry and Roadrunner. For starters, both cartoons were pretty much a blood bath from the word go; in fact that entire premise of both shows was the destruction (or attempted destruction) of the principles involved. Wylie Coyote tried tirelessly to do away with the roadrunner using anything from dynamite to hurling anvils to throwing him off a cliff (never succeeding of course), and Tom and Jerry, whilst showing occasional spates of love, tortured each other to the point of making Jack Bauer look like a choirboy. And yet, we loved it and thought nothing of it at the time - aside from where do I get a bat like Tom's so I can pound my sister on the head when she's annoying me? Not to mention the overt racism on T and J thanks in part to its origins springing out of the close-minded/backward 1950's with many characters in blackface, or the character of ‘Mammy two shoes’ the poor and abusive black matron with a rodent problem. And yes, this was a kid's program.

Okay, perhaps a little roadrunner is harmless in the long run, but it does give you pause the next time you sing to your child about the plague, doesn’t it? I’m thinking the King and I will stick to songs about wheels on buses and spiders and stars in the sky. It will make for a much easier and less exhausting explanation when he starts to question what we're singing about (although the spider does die at the end as we wash the 'spider out', so maybe it's back to the drawing board!)

Copyright © 2014 Anthea Anka - Delighted And Disturbed