Behind the Meaning and the History of the Traditional Nursery Rhyme “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

When you’re a little kid singing in nursery school, there is one question that is more important than any other: Have YOU any wool? The idea, of course, comes from the traditional nursery rhyme, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” which is one of the most beloved and fun kids’ songs to sing of the past century. Here, we will dive into the meaning, origin, and lyrics of the subversive, even at times-controversial tune.

Origins and Meaning

The earliest printing of the English nursery rhyme comes to us from about 1744 and since then the words of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” have not changed dramatically at all.

The modern version, which has a simple rhyme and is easy to learn and recite by children, is sung like this, similar even to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star“:

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

When looking for a meaning to the nursery rhyme, it can be hard to find solid evidence. On the face of it, it’s a subversive little ditty. Sheep are often considered to be white, though many are a brown hue. So, to characterize one as black is, well, silly and memorable. Black wool, how fun.

But author Katherine Elwes Thomas in The Real Personages of Mother Goose (1930) argues that the rhyme implies resentment at the heavy taxation on wool in earlier centuries, particularly the “Old Custom” wool tax of 1275, which lasted until the 1400s.

[RELATED: Behind the Meaning of the Traditional Nursery Rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”]

Others more recently, however, contend that the rhyme is about (or at least lasted as a result of) the slave trade, particularly that of the southern United States. In more modern times as race and racism have entered into common conversations—in often very heightened ways—”Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” has taken on new meanings and connotations. But there is likely no supporting evidence that this kid’s song has anything to do with slavery, per se.

It’s even possible that black wool would have been prized, or more expensive, as no dye would be needed to color it. And it would be that much more rare.

Original Printing

The nursery rhyme was originally printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, which is the oldest surviving collection of English language nursery rhymes, from 1744. The lyrics are very similar to the modern version, and they go like this:

Bah, Bah, a black Sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes old mate I have
Three bags full,
Two for my master,
One for my dame,
None for the little boy
That cries in the lane.

In the next surviving printing, in Mother Goose’s Melody, from 1765, the rhyme remained consistent, except for the final lines, which went: “But none for the little boy who cries in the lane.”

In Sweden the Lamb is White

The lyrics were translated to Swedish by August Strindberg in 1872 but the black sheep is turned into a white lamb. It is one of the most popular Swedish kids’ songs to date.

The original translation appears in Barnen i skoge and a melody for it was written by musician Alice Tegnér. The song was published in a songbook in 1892.

Controversy

Due to the alleged racial implications, in 1986 in Britain, a controversy emerged over changing the lyrics of the rhyme because it was thought by some to be racially brought. One local nursery sought to change the piece—it was not a move by any local government, to be clear.

Similarly, in 1999, a group working to eradicate racism in children’s resources submitted to the Birmingham City Council sought to change the lyrics but this move was not implemented.

In 2006, two private nurseries alerted the song to go: Baa, Baa Rainbow Sheep, with the word “black” being changed to other adjectives like happy, sad, hopping, and pink.

In 2014, the Australian state of Victoria also considered changing the rhyme.

[RELATED: Behind the Meaning of the Traditional Nursery Rhyme, “Bingo Was His Name-O”]

Outside of the color issue, the phrase “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full sir” has been used in moments of submission and subordination. In 1910, the phrase was common even in the British Royal Navy.

Usage In History

The rhyme has been cited in literature and culture throughout history. Author Rudyard Kipling used it as the title of a semi-autobiographical short story in 1888.

In 1942 the U.S. Marine Corps used the name Black Sheep Squadron and the title “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was used for a book by its leader Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington as well as a TV series that aired from 1976 to 1978.

Final Thoughts

Subversion is catchy. Where something is normally white but is made black is memorable. That seems all there is to it to this little song. It’s easy to read into classic, simple lyrics and apply what you think to them at any given time, similar to an ink blot test. But in this case, that seems unnecessary. The rhyme is meant to be enjoyed and smiled at by children. Enjoy.

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