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“Rock A Bye, Baby” – The Origin Stories

Literature | July 2, 2019

Babies in trees? Rock A Bye, Baby is a strange nursery rhyme. Source: (mamalisa.com)

If you think about it, the popular nursery rhyme, “Rock A Bye, Baby,” contains some strange lyrics. After all, it tells of a baby rocking in the branches of a tree and falling to the ground when a limb snaps. Sticking an infant in a tree doesn’t sound like parental safe practices today, but the ditty must have some odd backstory that we don’t know. It turns out that there are several stories that explain the origins of this somewhat disturbing nursery rhyme. 

The remains of the Kenyon family yew tree. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)

The Kenyon Family of Tree Dwellers

Some stories claim that the impetus of “Rock A Bye, Baby” came from the real-life Kenyon family of Derbyshire, England. Back in the 1700s, Kate and Luke Kenyon and their eight children made their home in a hollowed-out yew tree. The tree was massive and old – perhaps as old as 2,000 years. According to legend, the Kenyons hollowed out one of the branches of the tree and made it into a cradle for their babies. Tucked safely into the tree branch, the child could be lulled to sleep by the movement of the tree in the wind. Apparently, the yew tree still exists in the woods outside Derbyshire, but it was damaged in the 1930s when vandals lit a fire inside it. 

Native American moms used tree cradles to lull their babies to sleep. Source: (traditionalnativehealing.com)

Creative Native American Moms

Another origin story for “Rock A Bye, Baby” claims that the lyrics were based on the written observations of a pilgrim boy who was new to the New World. The young child witnessed Native American moms placing their infants in sturdy cradles made from birch bark. The cradles were hung from the trees low branches so the soothing motion of the wind could gently rock the babies to sleep, freeing up the mothers to do their work. 

Did Rock A Bye, Baby wish harm to King James II's newborn baby. Source: (royal.uk)

An Allegorical Nursery Rhyme

Some historians say that “Rock A Bye, Baby” was not meant to be a nursery rhyme. Instead, it was an allegory about the political unrest of the time. In this origin story, the ditty was supposedly penned in a British pub during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The lyrics refer to the new heir to the throne, born to King James II of England, and actually, express the hope that the infant prince would die so that the reign of King James II could be overthrown. 

Did Davy Crockett's cousin write Rock A Bye, Baby. Source: (history.com)

The Davy Crockett Connection

A more recent claim states that “Rock A Bye, Baby” was written by Effie Crockett, a cousin of the legendary Davy Crockett. Effie Crockett, who later went by Effie I. Canning, claimed she wrote the lyrics to the nursery rhyme in 1872 as a way to calm the fussy infant she was babysitting. Although many people doubt her claim, a search of Effie I. Canning’s IMDB filmography shows that she was given credit for the lyrics in more than 175 television shows and movies.  

"Rock A Bye, Baby" appeared in Mother Goose's Melody. Source: (alephbet.com)

A Nursery Rhyme as a Cautionary Tale

“Rock A Bye, Baby” first appeared in print – under the title “Hush-A-Bye, Baby” – in the 1765 book, Mother Goose’s Melody. Although this is the first published reference to the verse, some historians contend that the song was around for more than two hundred years before it was printed. In Mother Goose’s Melody, it appears that the nursery rhyme serves as a cautionary tale. The footnote to the verse reads, “This may serve as a warning to the proud and ambition, who climb so high that they generally fall at last.” 

"Rock A Bye, Baby" reminded actress Clara Bow of a tragic childhood incident. Source: (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Not an Origin Story, But an Interesting Side Note

In her autobiography, Clara Bow, the silent film star, explains that “Rock A Bye, Baby” always reminded her of a painful and tragic incident from her childhood. When she was only ten years old, one of her classmates died after falling into a fire. When this happened, the boy’s mother ran to get help and young Clara held the child in her arms and watched as he died from his injuries. As an actress, Clara could cry on cue if “Rock A Bye, Baby” was played because it reminded her of the terrible fire and the poor child’s death. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.