Sing a Song of Sixpence
DESCRIPTION: "Sing a song of sixpence A pocket full of rye; Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie." The pie is opened and the birds sing. The king is in the counting house, the queen in the parlour, the maid in the garden and a blackbird "snapped off her nose"
EARLIEST DATE: 1784 (Gammar Gurton's Garland, according to Opie/Opie-OxfordDictionaryOfNurseryRhymes)
KEYWORDS: food nonballad bird royalty
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland(Bord)) US(SE)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
Lyle-Andrew-CrawfurdsCollectionVolume2 189, "Sing a Sing o Sixpence" (1 fragment)
Opie/Opie-OxfordDictionaryOfNurseryRhymes 486, "Sing a song of sixpence" (1 text)
Baring-Gould-AnnotatedMotherGoose #3, p. 26, "(Sing a song of sixpence)"
Jack-PopGoesTheWeasel, p. 193, "Sing a Song of Sixpence" (1 text)
Dolby-OrangesAndLemons, p. 147, "Sing a Song of Sixpence" (1 text)
Henry-SongsSungInTheSouthernAppalachians, p. 229, "Sixpence" (1 text, with a different ending: No King in the counting-house, and the singer is "Sitting on a stool... a-singing for a fool")
Three Brave Blacksmiths (File: OLcM071)
Sing a Song of Charleston (Lawrence-MusicForPatriotsPoliticiansAndPresidents, p. 342)
(1880 Republican campaign song) ("Sing a song of shotguns, Pocket full of knives, Four-and-twenty black men, Running for their lives") (Paul F. Boller, Jr., _Presidential Campaigns_, second revised edition, Oxford University Press, p. 145)
The Tale of a Pig (by Kate Skates) (Les Cleveland, The Great New Zealand Songbook, p. 79)
Father Gander's Melodies ("Sing a song o' swindle, Safe full of stocks") (Foner, p. 155)
NOTES [495 words]: Opie/Opie-OxfordDictionaryOfNurseryRhymes: "It is well known that in the sixteenth century surprising things were inserted in pies.... The mention of a 'counting-house' ... also helps to indicate that the rhyme may be traced to the sixteenth century.... Kidson says that the air to which the words are generally sung is the old Scottish dance tune 'Calder Fair.'" - BS
The "surprising things" in the pie often were intended as a entertainment or reward (a theme which more recently inspired J. R. R. Tolkien's "Smith of Wootton Major," his last fantasy work). This tradition continued in Newfoundland ino the twentieth century; on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday, locally called "Pancake night"), it was common to bake a cake containing a button, a coin, a ring, and sometimes a nail; the one who finds the ring will soon marry, the one who finds the coin will get money, the button forecasts never marrying, and the nail forecasts either an early death or marrying a carpenter (England, p. 215; Young, p. 193).
The notes in the Annotated Mother Goose mention a connection with Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn. The source for this appears to be Thomas, pp. 68-69, who portrays Henry as the king counting the cash, Katherine the queen eating bread and honey, and Anne the maid attacked by the blackbird (though the attack somehow is supposed to refer to her broken-off relationship with the son of the Percy Duke of Northumberland.). But Henry VIII was the sort of monarch you wouldn't be likely to find in a counting house. If there were an English king involved, especially in the sixteenth century, it would doubtless be Henry VII, who was such a money-grubber that he would without doubt have had intimate relations with his cash had he figured out a way to do it.
One book I read seemed to be implying that this is about the Popes during the so-called "Babylonian Captivity" of the thirteenth century, when they resided at Avignon rather than Rome. Some of the Avignon Popes were indeed very concerned with money, but that seems extraordinarily early. And what does the text describe in that case? The Great Company invading the Papal territories? England taking possession of Aquitaine after the Treaty of Bretigny? All these things fall under the heading "possible but not at all convincing."
Jack-PopGoesTheWeasel, while mentioning the Henry VIII hypothesis, seems to be more interested in an explanation involving the pirate Blackbeard (for whom see "Teach the Rover"), although he admits he doesn't believe it.
As the Opies say, many of the suggested explanations are "not so easy to disprove" -- but even harder to prove.
The story may have undergone evolution over the years. Briggs, volume A.2, pp. 563-564, "A Thrawn Song," is clearly distinct, but contains enough analogous lines that I have to suspect some sort of dependence.
According to Davey/Seal, p. 187, this song inspired an Australian brand of meat pies called "Four'n Twenty Pies."- RBW
Last updated in version 6.2
- Briggs: Katherine Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language, Part A: Folk Narratives, 1970 (I use the 1971 Routledge paperback that combines volumes A.1 and A.2)
- Davey/Seal: Gwenda Beed Davey and Graham Seal, A Guide to Australian Folklore, Kangaroo Press, 2003
- England: George Allan England, Vikings of the Ice: Being the Log of a Tenderfoot on the Great Newfoundland Seal Hunt (also published as The Greatest Hunt in the World), Doubleday, 1924
- Thomas: Katherine Elwes Thomas, The Real Personages of Mother Goose, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., 1930
- Young: Ron Young, Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador, Downhome Publishing Inc., 2006
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