Behind the Universal Nursery Rhyme “The Farmer in the Dell”

“The Farmer in the Dell” is one of the many beloved childhood nursery rhymes that have been passed down by generations. Though it’s credited as starting in Germany, the song’s roots can be traced all around the world with variations of the lyrics. But people’s love for the song is universal.

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Meaning Behind the Song

Written circa 1826, the song is credited for having originated in in Germany before making its way across the world to America. Along its journey, the song has been translated into many languages. According to The Singing Game by Peter and Iona Opie, the song was likely brought to America by German immigrants around 1883 and has a melody similar to another nursery rhyme, “A-Hunting We Will Go.”

Throughout the late 1800s, it traveled across the U.S., Canada and made its way back to Europe and going as far as Australia and South Africa. In Germany, the song is known as, “Es Fuhr Ein Bau’r ins Holz,” which loosely translates into, “A farmer drove into the wood.” In the United Kingdom, it’s frequently known as “The Farmer’s in His Den” while Romania calls it “The Farmer is on the Field.” In English, a “dell” is known as a small valley surrounded by trees.

Regardless of what it’s called, the general plot line of the story is the passing down of desires, from a farmer who wants a wife, to their child who needs a nurse, to a dog who longs for a bone. The farmer’s in the den / The farmer wants a wife / The wife wants a child / The child wants a Miss / The Miss wants a dog / The dog wants a bone / We all clapped the dog, are the lyrics to one of the English adaptions. Throughout the song, the farmer takes a wife who then bears a child. The child is cared for by a nurse, with a cow, dog, cat and mouse rounding out the animals on the farm.

The song also lends itself to a children’s game. According to the 1898 book, Dictionary of British Folk-lore, all participants form a circle surrounding one person in the center, who represents the farmer in the dell. The person in the center then sets off a chain reaction where they pull someone else into the circle with them on each verse, serving as the nurse, wife, child and other characters in the song. Then all the players sing the final line in unison.

“The Farmer in the Dell” is also the title of a 1936 comedy film starring Fred Stone, Jean Parker and Esther Dale.


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