The Meaning Behind the Classic Nursery Rhyme “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It just might very well be the most famous song of all time.

Yes, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” is ubiquitous. Largely because of the diversity it offers. Anything could be found on the old farm, from a duck to a donkey to a carrot to a cow.

But what is the history, origin story, and meaning of the rhyme? That’s what we’re going to dive into here today!

Origin and Meaning

“Old MacDonald Had a Farm” is a traditional children’s song about a farmer and a myriad of animals he keeps on his land, his farm.

As each verse is sung, the principal names change and include the noise the animal makes. “…And on his farm he had a cow…. with a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there…”

The song is attributed to playwright and professional jokester Thomas d’Urfey who penned the tune for an opera in 1706. Later, it became much more widely known and turned into a folk song in the United Kingdom and America for hundreds of years.

Lyrical Content Today

The lyrics are both standard and interchangeable. Many of the phrases end in E-I-E-I-O while the names of the animals in the tune change—from cow to duck to many more.

For example:

Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O!
And on his farm he had a cow, E-I-E-I-O!
With a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there,
Here a moo, there a moo,
Everywhere a moo-moo,
Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O!

Thomas d’Urfey’s Version

The earliest version of the song is known as “In the Fields in Frost and Snow” from the 1706 opera, The Kingdom of the Birds by the English writer Thomas d’Urfey.

His version goes:

Watching late and early;
There I keep my Father’s Cows,
There I Milk ’em Yearly:
Booing here, Booing there,
Here a Boo, there a Boo, everywhere a Boo,
We defy all Care and Strife,
In a Charming Country-Life.

While this is the earliest version of the song, it remains unknown whether this was the very FIRST version or if it is based on a traditional song already in existence.

As with more modern versions, the animals change in Thomas’ offering, too. But his version is sung in a minor key, making it more melancholy. The current version, sung by children, is bright, zippy, and happy.

According to lore, Thomas’ opera was largely unsuccessful, but the song was used again, expanded on, and printed in his own work, Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy, vol. 2 in 1719. The song appeared in later operas, as well, throughout the 1700s. It was generally a beloved song, popular with ordinary English folk.

Later versions were collected by scholars, including under the title “The Farmyard Song” in the 1880s and “Father’s Wood I O” in 1906.

The well-known folk song collector Cecil Sharp college a version called “The Farmyard” in 1908 from a 74-year-old named Mrs. Goodey in London. Those lyrics go like this:

Up was I on my father’s farm

On a May day morning early;
Feeding of my father’s cows
On a May day morning early,
With a moo moo here and a moo moo there,
Here a moo, there a moo, Here a pretty moo.
Six pretty maids come and gang a-long o’ me
To the merry green fields of the farm-yard.

Frederick Thomas Nettleingham’s 1917 book Tommy’s Tunes, which is a collection of World War I-era songs, includes another version, called “Ohio,” which lists nine animals (and their sounds): horses (neigh-neigh), dogs (bow-wow), hens (cluck-cluck), ducks (quack-quack), goose (honk-honk), cows (moo-moo), pigs (oink-oink), cats (meow-meow), goats (baa-baa) and a donkey (hee-haw). In this version, the character is called Old Macdougal, whereas in prior versions the farmer is unnamed.

This version goes:

Old Macdougal had a farm, E-I-E-I-O

And on that farm he had some dogs, E-I-E-I-O
With a bow-wow here, and a bow-wow there,
Here a bow, there a bow, everywhere a bow-wow.

In the United States, in the region known as the Ozarks, which is largely in the southern midwest, there was another popular version, published in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Folksongs of 1980. This version, called “Old Missouri,” names different parts of a mule, rather than different animals altogether. It goes:

Old Missouri had a mule, he-hi-he-hi-ho,
And on this mule there were two ears, he-hi-he-hi-ho.
With a flip-flop here and a flip-flop there,
And here a flop and there a flop and everywhere a flip-flop
Old Missouri had a mule, he-hi-he-hi-ho.

Old MacDonald

The oldest version to include the name of the farmer we now know as Old MacDonald is the Sam Patterson Trio’s tune called, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” which was released in 1925.

These are largely thought of today as the first known versions of the song we know today.

Global Impact

The lyrics for the song have been translated from English into a myriad of other languages and have been modified to fit various cultures.

For example, in Egyptian Arabic, the song is called “Grandpa Ali.” In Chinese, it’s translated to “Old Mr. Wang had some land.” In Finland, it’s “Grandpa Piippola had a house.” In French, it’s In Mathurin’s farm.” In Ukrainian, it’s “Uncle Ivan has a cow.” There are many more, seemingly one for each country on the map.

And back in the United States, the great singer Ella Fitzgerald offered her rendition live on The Ed Sullivan Show, which you can see HERE.

Final Thoughts

As noted above, the popularity of the nursery rhyme likely has a lot to do with the diversity the song offers, not to mention the joy children have in making barnyard animal songs.

Every country has farms. Every country has animals. Every kid is interested in how things grow, how animals live, and, thus, how farms work, at least on a basic level.

And who doesn’t like saying “moo-moo here, a moo-moo there”? We all do!

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