Cryptic Lyrics in Children's Songs

The other day I raised a question on Facebook if anyone knew the meaning of the lyrics to the popular children's song "Pop Goes the Weasel." It's one of my young daughter's current favorites, and like a few other kids' tunes, the words baffle me.  One of my friends suggested that it was just intentionally "nonsensical" because children like nonsense.  That made me smile, but it led me no further in solving the riddle of the cryptic lyrics. 

An Internet search educated me on the song's British origins, but my cultural ignorance just added to my confusion.  The current Americanized words are mindboggling enough: "All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought 'twas all in fun. Pop goes the weasel! A penny for a spool of thread, a penny for a needle. That's the way the money goes. Pop goes the weasel!" (There's a third stanza about whooping cough and measles, but it just adds to my confusion, so I ignore it.)  The original version from England was even more perplexing: "Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle" -- say what? Or another version from the 1800's that goes "Up and down the City Road, in and out the Eagle."  My brain can't handle it.

Is it meant to be, as my friend pointed out, pure nonsense, like "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll? Or is there a deeper meaning that has been lost to antiquity?

Some nursery rhymes have very relaxing or catchy melodies, but examination of the lyrics reveals a darker subtext.  "London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady" - speculation abounds that the song refers to the violent destruction of the Bridge by the Vikings. There's even a gruesome theory that it refers to burying living sacrifices in the Bridge's foundation.

Some lullabyes are not as soothing upon closer examination -- "Rock-a-bye, baby, on the tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock, when the bough breaks the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all."  Yikes! What the heck is a baby doing up in a tree?  Where's Superman when we need him to catch the baby tumbling from the wind-blown limb?

How about "Ring around the rosies, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down?"  Innocent or frightening?  A simple, harmless little song or a morbid retelling of deaths from the black plague?

Even more contemporary songs have made some adults suspect hidden meanings.  Take one of my all-time childhood faves "Puff the Magic Dragon," for example.  The Peter, Paul, and Mary song gained popularity in the 1960s and was turned into a series of cartoons in the 1970s (with the great Burgess Meredith providing the voice of the noble Puff). Despite strong denials by the original songwriters and performers, many still believe the urban legend that its true meaning is about smoking marijuana. Anyway you try to look at it, it's about the loss of innocence, and a great little song.

Like little Jackie Paper, as we grow up we lose a bit of the wonder of childhood. Simple joys give way to more complex ruminations. Maybe we should just stop worrying and embrace the nonsense.

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