We take an in-depth look at the well-known English nursery rhyme "Sing a song of sixpence"

English: pg 1 of Sing A Song for Sixpence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1602 the bards play Twelfth Night Sir Toby Belch a somewhat witty character with an equivocal mix of high spirits and low cunning, tells a clown

“Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song” 
This may well be the first reference to the well-known English nursery rhyme Sing a song of sixpence?

Sing a song of sixpence also pops up in 1614 in a Jacobean tragi-comedy written by the English dramatists Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher called Bonduca, the British Celtic queen who led a revolt against the Romans in 6061 AD. She was one of a kind even though her name appears in many forms, for example Boudica, Boudicca and Boadicea. In the play the line is closer to the song we all know.
Whoa, here’s a stir now! Sing a song o’ sixpence!” 

The first printed verse appeared in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744.
Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
Baked in a Pye

Over time the rhyme changed from boys to birds and in 1784 a magpie makes it to the stage by attacking the unfortunate maid by pecking off her ill-fated nose.

Birds being baked in a pie were the amusement of the Italian gentry, in the 16th century, the birds were alive and when the pie was cut into out would fly all the birds much to the enjoyment of the assembled guest, An Italian cookbook from 1549 a recipe for such a pie.

Let’s look at the line “A pocket full of rye” this is very much a mystery, in the original version it’s a “Bag full of rye” and in my mind a bag full of rye was worth a sixpence and I think the rhyme might have started as 
Sing a Song of Sixpence,
Or a bag full of Rye
There is no proof whatsoever of this I just think its plausible, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it, and I presume the boys were baked in the pie simply because they were naughty.

And finally Rod Stewart in his song “Handbags and Gladrags” he sings 
Sing a song of six-pence for your sake
And drink a bottle full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds in a cake
And bake ‘em all in a pie

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  • sloanie on Aug 2, 2012

    Thanks for this very interesting article.
    As I’m sure you know many old English nursery rhymes, came from terrible events back in English history.
    Ring a ring a roses we all fall down, was created by children trying to make sense of the Black plague taking their parents.
    It would be nice to know the truth about all these nursery rhymes.

  • johnnydod on Aug 3, 2012

    Thank you for your comments Sloanie, if you are interested in this subject you should read this

    all the best


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