Origins of traditional nursery rhymes
March 19, 2007 11:35 PM   Subscribe

Folk/Childrens songs and similar traditional nursery rhymes or lullaby/melody/ditty, do we know where they originated? And why some cultures share them, and others do not..

I guess one would have to look at each one individually, but as a Swede, I have thought that many were probably English (itsy-spider/bahbah sheep and whatnot) and translated into Swedish to become traditional. And perhaps some were Swedish to start with (Sma Grodorna/Little Frogs).

I just attended an event at the Daycare here in Japan, only to hear the tune of "Sma Grodorna" sung to something in Japanese. (Which appeared not to be about kaeru, nor did it have the dance associated with it). So who got it from whom? It is not a tune that is generally known by English speakers (although, perhaps known now due to Minority Report movie)

A Danish friend knew the finger-family dance song, but only in Danish (daddy finger, mommy finger, brother/sister/baby finger).. where did that come from originally?

Or are most of these so long ago, nobody cares? :) Just found it interesting that Sweden and Japan can share a traditional (?) nursery rhyme when we have not really been close in the past.
posted by lundman to Society & Culture (4 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Many are a lot less old than you'd think. "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" seems to date from the early-mid 20th century in America. Some of the folk ballads collected by Child in the 19th century, which originate mostly in the 17th-18th centuries, remain popular today (Barbara Allen for instance.) Some American folk songs also originate in the minstrel shows of the 19th century, and many British ones started off as "broadsheet ballads" sold on the streets.

Children's songs appear to be extremely susceptible to becoming part of the "folk tradition", and getting passed around from person to person informally, getting changed and adapted in the process. As a result, songs like "Happy Birthday", which was written in 1893 by Mildred J. Hill and which is still under copyright, can become "traditional".

As for cross-cultural sharing, I bet most of it happens long after the songs are written. My strangest cross-cultural folk song experience was finding that someone I know from the Philippines knew the Yiddish song Tumbalalaika , in English---but it turned out to have a relatively reasonable explanation. Also, sometimes melodies for children's songs originate with hymns (apparently e.g. "if you're happy and you know it"), which do tend to get translated quite a bit and shared between countries. But really, I'm just entirely speculating. I'm no expert, and all I've got to go on is Google, personal recollection and my copy of Rise Up Singing.. I wonder if Metafilter has any musicologists?

(Sorry I just covered English-langauge!)
posted by goingonit at 10:53 AM on March 20, 2007

Some pedagogues theorize that the descending minor-third interval, as found in many childrens' songs, is "inborn".
posted by fvox13 at 2:22 PM on March 20, 2007

Well, I came here to suggest The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren - it may not be exactly what you're after, but has loads about the history of and ways of transmitting nursery rhymes. I couldn't find a good link to it, but in Googling found this AskMe thread with a great discussion by verstegan about that book and another one by the Opies.
posted by paduasoy at 7:13 AM on March 21, 2007

Heavy Words, Lightly Thrown
posted by vega5960 at 8:17 AM on March 23, 2007

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