A nursery rhyme is a traditional poem or song for children in Britain and many other countries, but usage of the term only dates from the late 18th/early 19th century. The term Mother Goose rhymes is interchangeable with nursery rhymes.
From the mid-16th century nursery rhymes begin to be recorded in English plays, and most popular rhymes date from the 17th and 18th centuries. The first English collections, Tommy Thumb’s Song Book and a sequel, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, were published before 1744. Publisher John Newbery’s stepson, Thomas Carnan, was the first to use the term Mother Goose for nursery rhymes when he published a compilation of English rhymes, Mother Goose’s Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle.
Take a look below for 10 of the best and most well known nursery rhymes.
1. The Itsy Bitsy Spider
“Itsy Bitsy Spider” (also known as “Incy Wincy Spider” in Australia and Great Britain, and several other similar-sounding names) is a popular nursery rhyme and fingerplay that describes the adventures of a spider as it ascends, descends, and reascends the downspout or “waterspout” of a gutter system (or, alternatively, the spout of a teapot or open-air reservoir). It is usually accompanied by a sequence of gestures that mimic the words of the song. Its Roud Folk Song Index number is 11586.
The song can be found in publications including an alternative version in the book, Camp and Camino in Lower California (1910), where it was referred to as [the classic] “Spider Song.” It appears to be a different version of this song using “blooming, bloody” instead of “itsy bitsy”. It was later published in one of its several modern versions in Western Folklore, by the California Folklore Society (1948), Mike and Peggy Seeger’s, American Folk Songs for Children (1948).
2. Humpty Dumpty
Humpty Dumpty is a character in an English nursery rhyme, probably originally a riddle and one of the best known in the English-speaking world. He is typically portrayed as an anthropomorphic egg, though he is not explicitly described as such. The first recorded versions of the rhyme date from late nineteenth-century England and the tune from 1870 in James William Elliott’s National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs. Its origins are obscure, and several theories have been advanced to suggest original meanings.
The character of Humpty Dumpty was popularized in the United States by actor George L. Fox (1825–1877). As a character and literary allusion, he has appeared or been referred to in many works of literature and popular culture, particularly English author Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1872), in which he was described as an egg. The rhyme is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index as No. 13026.
3. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Stars
“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is a popular English lullaby. The lyrics are from an early-19th-century English poem by Jane Taylor, The Star. The poem, which is in couplet form, was first published in 1806 in Rhymes for the Nursery, a collection of poems by Taylor and her sister Ann. It is sung to the tune of the French melody “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman”, which was published in 1761 and later arranged by several composers, including Mozart with Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”. The English lyrics have five stanzas, although only the first is widely known. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 7666. This song is usually performed in the key of C major.
4. Mary Had a Little Lamb
“Mary Had a Little Lamb” is an English language nursery rhyme of nineteenth-century American origin. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 7622.
The nursery rhyme was first published by the Boston publishing firm Marsh, Capen & Lyon, as a poem by Sarah Josepha Hale on May 24, 1830, and was possibly inspired by an actual incident.
5. Are You Sleeping Brother John
Frère Jacques, in the nursery rhyme and in song more generally, also known in English as Brother John, is a nursery rhyme of French origin. The rhyme is traditionally sung in a round.
The song is about a friar who has overslept and is urged to wake up and sound the bell for the matins, the midnight, or very early morning prayers for which a monk would be expected to wake.
6. Row, Row, Row Your Boat
“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is an English language nursery rhyme and a popular children’s song. It can also be an “action” nursery rhyme, whose singers sit opposite one another and “row” forwards and backwards with joined hands. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 19236.
Bing Crosby included the song in a medley on his album 101 Gang Songs (1961). Crosby also used the song as part of a round with his family during his concert at the London Palladium in 1976. The performance was captured on the album Bing Crosby Live at the London Palladium.
It has been suggested that the song may have originally arisen out of American minstrelsy. The earliest printing of the song is from 1852, when the lyrics were published with similar lyrics to those used today, but with a very different tune. It was reprinted again two years later with the same lyrics and another tune. The modern tune was first recorded with the lyrics in 1881, mentioning Eliphalet Oram Lyte in The Franklin Square Song Collection but not making it clear whether he was the composer or adapter.
7. Little Miss Muffet
“Little Miss Muffet” is a nursery rhyme, one of the most commonly printed in the mid-twentieth century. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 20605.
The rhyme first appeared in print in 1805, in a book titled Songs for the Nursery. Like many such rhymes, its origins are unclear. Some claim it was written by Dr Thomas Muffet (d.1604), an English physician and entomologist, regarding his stepdaughter Patience; others claim it refers to Mary, Queen of Scots (1543–87), who was said to have been frightened by religious reformer John Knox (1510–72).
The first explanation is speculative, and the latter is doubted by most literary scholars, who note that stories linking folk tales or songs to political events are often urban legends. Several novels and films, including the Alex Cross novel Along Came a Spider (1993) and its eponymous 2001 film adaptation, take their titles from the poem’s crucial line.
8. Ring Around the Rosie
“Ring a Ring o’ Roses” or “Ring a Ring o’ Rosie” is an English nursery rhyme or folksong and playground singing game. It first appeared in print in 1881, but it is reported that a version was already being sung to the current tune in the 1790s and similar rhymes are known from across Europe. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 7925.
9. The Wheels On the Bus
“The Wheels on the Bus” is an American folk song written by Verna Hills (1898–1990) and published in 1939. It is a popular children’s song in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Canada, and is often sung by children on bus trips to keep themselves amused. It has a very repetitive rhythm, making the song easy for many people to sing, in a manner similar to the song “99 Bottles of Beer”. It is based on fellow traditional British song “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”. The song is also sometimes sung to the tune of “Buffalo Gals”, as in the version done by Raffi.
10. This Little Piggy
“This Little Piggy” or “This Little Pig” is an English language nursery rhyme and fingerplay. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 19297.
In 1728, the first line of the rhyme appeared in a medley called “The Nurses Song”. The first known full version was recorded in The Famous Tommy Thumb’s Little Story-Book, published in London about 1760.
The full rhyme continued to appear, with slight variations, in many late 18th and early 19th century collections. Until the mid-20th century, the lines referred to “little pigs”.