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Originally it told of a juvenile who ventures to the world and returns as a man to his family. It gained much more popularity around 1900, when the following abridged textual version came to be adopted as among the first songs to be taught to small children, whether at home or in kindergarten. Now it is about a small boy, who is going away but returns immediately to hearth and home, since his mother, left alone, began crying.
The tune of this song is also used in the simple Mother Goose rhyme of "Lightly Row", and another version are the children's songs "Little bird, have you heard" and "Baby-bye, there's a fly", which in turn is related to the song "Warm Kitty" (made famous as "Soft Kitty" in the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory). It is the theme song of the 1977 war film Cross of Iron. In the German dubbed version of 2001: A Space Odyssey the HAL 9000 computer sings "Hänschen klein" (instead of "Daisy Bell") while deactivated, possibly because in 1958 a Z22 computer had been programmed by the employees of Konrad Zuse to sing the tune in a demonstration.
The following version, thought to be from about 1899, is attributed to Otto Frömmel (1873–1940).