The oldest children’s songs of which we have records are lullabies, intended to help a child sleep. Lullabies can be found in every human culture. The English term lullaby is thought to come from “lu, lu” or “la la” sound made by mothers or nurses to calm children, and “by by” or “bye bye”, either another lulling sound, or a term for good night. Until the modern era lullabies were usually only recorded incidentally in written sources. The Roman nurses’ lullaby, “Lalla, Lalla, Lalla, aut dormi, aut lacte”, is recorded in a scholium on Persius and may be the oldest to survive.
Many medieval English verses associated with the birth of Jesus take the form of a lullaby, including “Lullay, my liking, my dere son, my sweting” and may be versions of contemporary lullabies. However, most of those used today date from the 17th century. For example, a well known lullaby such as “Rock-a-bye, baby on a tree top”, cannot be found in records until the late-18th century when it was printed by John Newbery (c. 1765).
Early nursery rhymes
From the later Middle Ages we have records of short children’s rhyming songs, often as marginalia. From the mid-16th century they begin to be recorded in English plays. Most nursery rhymes were not written down until the 18th century, when the publishing of children’s books began to move from polemic and education towards entertainment, but there is evidence for many rhymes existing before this, including “To market, to market” and “Cock a doodle doo”, which date from at least the late 16th century.
The first English collections, Tommy Thumb’s Song Book and a sequel, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, are both thought to have been published before 1744, with such songs becoming known as ‘Tommy Thumb’s songs’. The publication of John Newbery’s compilation of English rhymes, Mother Goose’s Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle (London, c.1765), is the first record we have of many classic rhymes, still in use today. These rhymes seem to have come from a variety of sources, including traditional riddles, proverbs, ballads, lines of Mummers’ plays, drinking songs, historical events, and, it has been suggested, ancient pagan rituals. About half of the currently recognised “traditional” English rhymes were known by the mid-18th century.
In the early 19th century printed collections of rhymes began to spread to other countries, including Robert Chambers’s Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1826) and in the United States, Mother Goose’s Melodies (1833). From this period we sometimes know the origins and authors of rhymes—for instance, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, which combined the 18th-century French tune “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” with a poem by English writer Jane Taylor and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, written by Sarah Josepha Hale of Boston in 1830.
Early folk song collectors also often collected (what were now known as) nursery rhymes, including in Scotland Sir Walter Scott and in Germany Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim in Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1806–1808). The first, and possibly the most important academic collection to focus in this area was James Orchard Halliwell’s, The Nursery Rhymes of England (1842) and Popular Rhymes and Tales in 1849, in which he divided rhymes into antiquities (historical), fireside stories, game-rhymes, alphabet-rhymes, riddles, nature-rhymes, places and families, proverbs, superstitions, customs, and nursery songs (lullabies). By the time of Sabine Baring-Gould’s A Book of Nursery Songs (1895), folklore was an academic study, full of comments and foot-notes. A professional anthropologist, Andrew Lang (1844–1912) produced The Nursery Rhyme Book in 1897. The early years of the 20th century are notable for the illustrations to children’s books including Caldecott’s Hey Diddle Diddle Picture Book (1909) and Arthur Rackham’s Mother Goose (1913). The definitive study of English rhymes remains the work of Iona and Peter Opie.