‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ is an English nursery rhyme that is sung to a variation of a French song. The melody of the song, titled, ‘Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman,’ was utilized for the nursery rhyme starting around 1760. ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ is one of the oldest English rhymes. It dates to 1731. Since its conception, the song has not changed much. It was first printed in 1744 in the oldest surviving collection of English rhymes, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book.
Explore 'Baa, Baa, Black Sheep'
At this time the lyrics read:
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
Since then the lyrics have solidified to something closer to:
Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane
The main difference between these two versions is the fact that the little boy in the older version of the song does not get any wool. This is one of those moments in nursery rhymes where the song edges too close to reality. These moments are changed in later version of the song in order to make them more child-friendly. In the contemporary version of the song, everyone gets to have wool from the black sheep.
Popularization of Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
While nursery rhymes remain popular within households, they have also been used within the larger media. For instance, ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ was used by Rudyard Kipling as the title of a short story in 1888. It has also been used within television series and movies, as well as in titles and subtitles for other fiction and non-fiction works.
Analysis of Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
The song itself is straightforward. It is made up of eight lines which follow a simple rhyming pattern of ABCBCDED. Repetition is a very important element in this rhyme and in nursery rhymes in general. In this case, the phrase “Yes, sir, yes, sir” is a clear example. It is also the shortest, punchiest line of the song and the turning point for the rest of the text.
Repetition can also be seen at the beginning of the lines. This is known as anaphora. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. The phrase “And one for the…” is used at the beginning of lines six and seven. It is pleasing to read out loud, as it should be. “One for” also appears at the beginning of the fifth line.
Alliteration is another common element which can be seen within nursery rhymes, or any verse meant for a young reader. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. In this case, the first line is the best example. The letter “b” is used three times in a row.
Interpretation of Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
As is the case of most nursery rhymes, their history entails a deeper meaning. This meaning is often not interpreted, or considered by those who sing and celebrate the songs. As nursery rhymes go, ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ is one of the more controversial. Scholars have come to believe that the song dates back to Medieval times and that it is related to the “Great Custom”.
This was, at the time, a new wool tax which was introduced by Edward I after he returned from the Crusades. It was conceptualized in order to supply the monarch with the extra money he needed for further military expenditures. At the time of the new tax, the wool trade was booming in England. It was in very high demand for cloth making.
The tax was in place from 1275 until the 15th century. This interpretation of the poem was set out in The Real Personages of Mother Goose, written by Katherine Elwes Thomas and published in 1930.
An Alternative Interpretation
Since Medieval times, the meaning has been lost, found again, and lost again. In the intervening years, some have considered alternative meanings to the song. It could, simply be speaking about sheep and their wool. Or, as some believed, specifically around the mid-1980s in England, the song alludes to slavery. The phrase “ Black sheep” is considered by some to be a reference to African slaves, and the wool as an allusion to the labor they were forced to endure. There is no evidence for this interpretation.
At one point, when this controversial interpretation was being taught in the UK, there were rumors that school districts were considering banning the song. Since then, there have been a few instances in which schools and nurseries have altered the lyrics replacing the word black with alternative adjectives, such as “happy,” “rainbow,” and “little”.
In more recent years, the majority of scholars and educators have come to agree with the first interpretation of the poem, that it is in reference to the wool tax.