Was ‘Little Boy Blue’ actually Wolsey?

Published 1:05 am Saturday, February 1, 2014

While contemplating what brief, simple tune to play on a dulcimer for a children’s program, I found the sheet music for “Mary had A little Lamb.” When I saw the title, almost immediately the picture of a book came to mind.

Somewhere I had a Mother Goose book. Was it one from my childhood or one I bought for my own children years ago? If the book was still in my house, I was almost certain I could find it. I went to a certain shelf in the den and soon pulled out the pinkish-orange hardback. The binding and the tips of the edges are frayed, but the pages with delightful illustrations are still in good condition. I noted it held a 1944 copyright.

Since neither my name nor one of my children’s names was inscribed on the inside cover, I still had no clue to whom it belonged. As I turned the pages, I wondered about the origins of those verses my mother had read and taught me in my childhood. What I found as I searched for the answers surprised me. I had always looked upon Mother Goose rhymes as nonsensical verses written to amuse children, nothing more. Despite her celebrated place in children’s literature, the exact identity and origin of Mother Goose herself is still unknown. When I researched Mother Goose rhymes, I discovered, according to Encyclopedia Americana, they fall into six classes: lullabies, play rhymes, number rhymes, rhymes based on historical events or personages, cumulative lines, or verses and riddles.

“Mary had a Little Lamb” written in 1830, demonstrates a message of love and loyalty. Some believe that it has Christian origins, allegorically representing the Virgin Mary and Jesus (the lamb). Perhaps the fleece, described as white-as-snow, represents purity and innocence. Its author was a Boston woman, Sarah Hale.

“Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old” first appeared in “Mother Goose’s Melody,” published in 1760. Pease porridge, an English dish, is made from baked split peas, ham, salt, and spices.

“Little Boy Blue” might allude to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a prominent English political leader and figure in the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII. This rhyme is suggested to have been a masked message of rebellion opposing Wolsey’s greed.

“Do You Know the Muffin Man” surfaced first in 1820 in England. It referred to a man who delivered muffins door-to-door, much like our American milk deliverymen.

“Star Light Star Bright,” probably of American origins in the nineteenth century, falls into the lullaby category. It is said that “Rock a Bye Baby” is about a pilgrim boy’s observation of Indian mothers hanging their infants’cradles from tree branches, allowing the wind to rock the child to sleep.

The origins of “Little Miss Muffet” (scared by a spider who sat beside her) are uncertain. One theory is a famous entomologist wrote it for his stepdaughters. It emerged in 1805 in the publication, “Songs for the Nursery.”