Behind the History and the Meaning of the Nursery Rhyme, “Rock-a-bye Baby”

It’s funny. When you dig into the lyrics of a particular song, you might be stunned by what they say.

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For example, one of the sweetest-sounding songs we hear as a child is the nursery rhyme, “Rock-a-bye Baby.” But looking at the words, themselves, without any melody or gentle tone, the song is seemingly morbid and odd.

But is there more than meets the eye? What is the origin and meaning of the song, which is also known by some as “Hush-a-bye Baby”? Let’s find out the meaning below.


Many believe that the first appearance of the rhyme and lullaby occurred in 1765 in Mother Goose’s Melody, which was then reprinted in Boston in 1785. While no copies of the first edition are known, a 1791 edition has the following lyrics:

Hush-a-by baby on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
Down tumbles baby, cradle and all.

In that publication, the rhyme is accompanied by the note: “This may serve as a warning to the proud and ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last.”

Modern Version

More modern versions of the song have changed the name from “Hush-a-bye Baby” to “Rock-a-bye Baby.” That name change was first recorded in 1805 in Benjamin Tabart’s collection, Songs for the Nursery.

Today, the lyrics are best known as:

Rock a bye baby on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

In 1887, the British newspaper, The Times, included an advertisement for a performance in London by a group of musicians who were going to play the “new” American song, “Rock-a-bye.” Later, an article in The New York Times, in 1891, referenced the song being played in a New Jersey parade.

Today, the song is sung in nursery schools and by parents of young children everywhere.

Meanings and Final Thoughts

The best thing about nursery rhymes and lullabies like this is that they are so memorable because, in a way, they are so simple. Simple language, simple ideas. But somehow they last in the collective consciousness.

But why?

One reason is that, because they are so simple, they can have any number of meanings applied to them. “Jack and Jill,” for example could be about the price of beer rising and falling or it could be about the human life cycle. “Rock-a-bye Baby” is no different.

Over time, some have thought the lullaby is about the Egyptian deity Horus, god of kingship and the sky. Others have claimed it’s a corruption of the French tune, “He bas! là le loup!” (Hush! There’s the wolf!) Some have thought it’s a reference to British colonists noticing Native American women comforting their children by rocking them in birch-bark cradles.

But these specific ideas miss the larger point: the rhymes mean something and nothing all at once. If you ask us, however, the most essential reading of the nursery rhyme has to do with the life in front of the child to whom it’s being sung.

A young baby has, presumably, decades and decades in front of it. A whole life to live. In this way, they’re at the top of the world. Young as can be. No way to go but down. So, with the trials and tribulations of life, comes the “rocking” of the cradle. Then, when it’s their turn, the end must come, and the great fall.

But even if this wasn’t the intention of the song’s writer, it can be applied because the nursery rhyme is so simple and straightforward, using such common nouns and verbs. It’s the beauty of a tune being refined over centuries.

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