It could very well be the most famous song of all time.
Yes, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” is ubiquitous. Largely because of the diversity it offers. Everything could be found on the old farm, from a duck to a donkey to a carrot to a cow.
But what is the history, origin story and meaning of the rhyme? That’s what we’re going to dive into here today!
Origin and meaning
“Old MacDonald Had a Farm” is a traditional children’s song about a farmer and the myriad animals he keeps on his land, his farm.
As each verse is sung, the main names change and include the sound the animal makes. “…And on his farm he had a cow…. with a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there…”
The song is attributed to professional playwright and prankster Thomas d’Urfey who wrote the melody for an opera in 1706. Later it became much better known and developed into a folk song in the UK and America during hundreds of years.
Lyrical content today
The lyrics are both standard and interchangeable. Many phrases end with EIEIO while the names of the animals in the melody change from cow to duck and many more.
Old MacDonald had a farm, EIEIO!
And on his farm he had a cow, EIEIO!
With a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there,
Here a moo, there a moo,
Everywhere a moo-moo,
Old MacDonald had a farm, EIEIO!
Version by Thomas d’Urfey
The earliest version of the song is known as “In the Fields in Frost and Snow” from the 1706 opera, the kingdom of birds by the English writer Thomas d’Urfey.
His version goes:
Watch late and early;
There I keep my father’s cows,
There, I treat them every year:
booing here, booing there,
Here a Boo, there a Boo, everywhere a Boo,
We defy all care and conflict,
In a Charming Country Life.
Although this is the first version of the song, it is unknown if it is the very FIRST version or if it is based on an already existing traditional song.
As with more modern versions, the animals also change in Thomas’ offering. But his version is sung in a minor key, which makes it more melancholy. The current version, sung by children, is bright, energetic and joyful.
According to tradition, Thomas’ opera was largely unsuccessful, but the song was reused, expanded and printed in his own work, Spirit and cheerfulness or pills to purge melancholy, flight. 2 in 1719. The song also appeared in later operas throughout the 1700s. It was generally a beloved song, popular with ordinary English people.
Later versions were collected by scholars, notably as “The Farmyard Song” in the 1880s and “Father’s Wood IO” in 1906.
Well-known folksong collector Cecil Sharp created a version called “The Farmyard” in 1908 of a 74-year-old woman named Mrs. Goodey in London. Those lyrics go like this:
I was on my father’s farm
An early May morning;
Feed my father’s cows
On a May day early in the morning,
With a moo moo here and a moo moo there,
Here a moo, there a moo, Here a nice moo.
Six pretty maids come and gang up on me
To the cheerful green fields of the farmyard.
Book by Frederick Thomas Nettleingham from 1917 Tommy’s songs, which is a collection of World War I songs, includes another version, called “Ohio”, which lists nine animals (and their sounds): horses (neigh-neigh), dogs (bow-wow), chickens (cluck – cluck), ducks (quack-quack), goose (honk), cows (moo-moo), pigs (oink-oink), cats (meow-meow), goats (baa-baa) and a donkey (hee- hawthorn ). In this version, the character is called Old Macdougal, whereas in earlier versions the farmer is not named.
This version will:
Old Macdougal had a farm, EIEIO
And on this farm he had dogs, EIEIO
With a bow-wow here, and a bow-wow there,
Here a bow, there a bow, everywhere a bow-wow.
In the United States, in the region known as the Ozarks, which is largely in the southern Midwest, there was another popular version, published in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Folk Songs from 1980. This version, called “Old Missouri”, names different parts of a mule, rather than different animals. How are you:
Old Missouri had a mule, he-hi-he-hi-ho,
And on this mule there were two ears, he-hi-he-hi-ho.
With a flip here and a flip there,
And here a flop and there a flop and everywhere a seesaw
Old Missouri had a mule, he-he-he-he-ho.
The earliest version to include the name of the farmer we now know as Old MacDonald is the Sam Patterson Trio song titled “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”, which was released in 1925.
These are widely considered today to be the earliest known versions of the song we know today.
The song’s lyrics have been translated from English into a myriad of other languages and have been changed to suit various cultures.
For example, in Egyptian Arabic, the song is called “Grandpa Ali”. In Chinese, it translates to “Old Mr. Wang had land.” In Finland, it’s “Grandfather Piippola had a house”. In French, it’s Dans la ferme de Mathurin. In Ukrainian, it’s “Uncle Ivan has a cow”. There are many more, apparently one for each country on the map.
And back in the United States, the great singer Ella Fitzgerald offered her interpretation live on The Ed Sullivan Showwhich you can see HERE.
As noted above, the nursery rhyme’s popularity likely has a lot to do with the diversity the song offers, not to mention the joy children have in making barnyard animal songs.
Every country has farms. Every country has animals. Every child is interested in how things grow, how animals live, and therefore how farms work, at least on a basic level.
And who doesn’t like to say “moo-moo here, a moo-moo there”? We all do!