Behind the meaning and history of the traditional nursery rhyme “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”

When you’re a little kid singing in kindergarten, there’s one question that’s more important than any other: Do YOU ​​have any yarn? The idea, of course, comes from the traditional nursery rhyme, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” which is one of the most beloved and fun-to-sing children’s songs of the last century. Here, we’ll dive into the meaning, origin, and lyrics of the subversive, even sometimes controversial tune.

Origins and meaning

The first printing of the English nursery rhyme comes to us from around 1744 and since then the words of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” have not changed dramatically at all.

The modern version, which has a simple rhyme and is easy for children to learn and recite, is sung like this, similar even to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”:

BAA Baa black sheep,
Do you have wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three full bags;
One for the master,
One for the lady,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the road.

When looking for meaning in the rhyme, it can be difficult to find solid evidence. At first glance, it’s a subversive little ditty. Sheep are often considered white, although many have a brown tint. So calling someone black is, well, silly and memorable. Black wool, what a pleasure.

But author Katherine Elwes Thomas in The real characters of Mother Goose (1930) argues that the rhyme involves resentment of the heavy taxation of wool in previous centuries, particularly the “Old Custom” wool tax of 1275, which lasted until the 1400s.

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Others more recently, however, argue that the rhyme is about (or at least lasted because of) the slave trade, particularly that of the southern United States. In more modern times, as race and racism have entered mainstream conversation – often in very intense ways – “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” has taken on new meanings and connotations. But there’s probably no supporting evidence that this child’s song has anything to do with slavery per se.

It is even possible that black wool was prized, or more expensive, as no dye would have been needed to color it. And that would be all the more rare.

Original print

The rhyme was originally printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, which is the oldest collection of rhymes in English, dating from 1744. The lyrics are very similar to the modern version, and they look like this:

Bah, bah, a black sheep,
Do you have wool?
Yes old friend I have
three full bags,
Two for my master,
One for my lady,
None for the little boy
Who shouts in the alley.

In the next surviving impression, in The melody of mother goosefrom 1765 the rhyme has remained consistent, except for the last lines, which are: “But none for the little boy crying in the alley.”

In Sweden the lamb is white

The lyrics were translated into Swedish by August Strindberg in 1872 but the black sheep is turned into a white lamb. It is one of the most popular Swedish children’s songs to date.

The original translation appears in Barnen i skoge and a melody for it was written by musician Alice Tegnér. The song was published in a songbook in 1892.

Controversial

Due to the alleged racial implications, in 1986 in Britain controversy emerged over the rhyme’s lyrics being changed because some thought it was racially based. A local nursery sought to change the room – it was not a local government decision, to be clear.

Similarly, in 1999, a group working to eradicate racism in children’s resources submitted to Birmingham City Council sought to change the lyrics, but this decision was not implemented.

In 2006, two private nurseries alerted the song to take away: Baa, Baa rainbow sheepthe word “black” being replaced by other adjectives like happy, sad, bouncy and pink.

In 2014, the Australian state of Victoria also considered changing the rhyme.

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Apart from the issue of colors, the phrase “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full sir” has been used in moments of submission and subordination. By 1910, the phrase was common even in Britain’s Royal Navy.

Usage in history

Rhyme has been cited in literature and culture throughout history. Author Rudyard Kipling used it as the title of a semi-autobiographical short story in 1888.

In 1942, the U.S. Marine Corps used the name Black Sheep Squadron and the title “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was used for a book by its leader, Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, as well as a television series broadcast from 1976 to 1978.

Final Thoughts

Subversion is catchy. Where something is normally white but is made black is memorable. That seems like all there is to this little song. It’s easy to read simple, classic lyrics and apply what you think to it anytime, like an inkblot test. But in this case, it seems pointless. The nursery rhyme is meant to be enjoyed and smiled upon by children. Enjoy.

Dora W. Clawson