|Publication date||c. 1765|
The rhyme is believed to have first appeared in print in Mother Goose's Melody (London c. 1765), possibly published by John Newbery, and which was reprinted in Boston in 1785. No copies of the first edition are extant, but a 1791 edition has the following words:
Hush-a-by baby on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
Down tumbles baby, cradle and all.
The rhyme is followed by a note "This may serve as a warning to the proud and ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last."
Rock a-bye, baby,
On the tree top,
When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock.
When the bow breaks,
The baby will fall,
Down will come baby,
Cradle and all!
The scholars Iona and Peter Opie note that the age of the words is uncertain, and that "imaginations have been stretched to give the rhyme significance". They list a variety of claims that have been made, without endorsing any of them:
- that the babe represents the Egyptian deity Horus
- that the first line is a corruption of the French "He bas! là le loup!" (Hush! There's the wolf!)
- that it was written by an English Mayflower colonist who observed the way Native American women rocked their babies in birch-bark cradles, suspended from the branches of trees
- that it lampoons the British royal line in the time of James II.
In Derbyshire, England, one local legend has it that the song relates to a local character in the late 18th century, Betty Kenny (Kate Kenyon), who lived a huge yew tree in Shining Cliff Woods in the Derwent Valley, where a hollowed-out bough served as a cradle.
The rhyme is generally sung to one of two tunes. The only one mentioned by the Opies in The Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes (1951) is a variant of Henry Purcell's 1686 quickstep Lillibullero, but a second is popular in the USA.
In 1887 The Times carried an advertisement for a performance in London by a minstrel group featuring a "new" American song called 'Rock-a-bye': "Moore and Burgess Minstrels, St James's-hall TODAY at 3, TONIGHT at 8, when the following new and charming songs will be sung...The great American song of ROCK-A-BYE..." An article in The New York Times of August 1891 referred to the tune being played in a parade in Asbury Park, N.J. Newspapers of the period credited its composition to two separate persons, both resident in Boston: Effie Canning (later referred to as Mrs. Effie D. Canning Carlton, and Charles Dupee Blake.
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- Opie, Iona; Opie, Peter, eds. (1997). The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 70. ISBN 978-0-19-860088-6.
- H. Carpenter and M. Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 326.
- Prideaux, WF (1904). Mother Goose's Melody : A facsimile reproduction of the earliest known edition. London: AH Bullen. p. 39. A reproduction of Mother Goose's Melody : Or, Sonnets for the Cradle, published by Francis Power (grandson to the late Mr J Newbery), London, 65 St Paul's Chuchyard, 1791.
- Morag Styles, From the garden to the street: an introduction to 300 years of poetry for children (Cassell, 1998),p. 105.
- "Rock a-bye, baby". BBC School Radio. Retrieved 4 June 2021.
- "Ambergate Walk leaflet" (PDF). Ambervalley.gov.uk. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-28.
- The Times, Monday, Sep 19, 1887; pg. 1; Issue 32181
- New York Times, August 4, 1891 (p. 1) refers to the tune being played at a Baby Parade at Asbury Park, N.J.: "The line of march formed at the Asbury Avenue Pavilion, and, headed by the full band of the United States steamship Trenton playing "Rock-a-Bye Baby," proceeded up the promenade and countermarched, returning in files of four."
- New York Times, Sunday January 7, 1940, Section: Obituaries, Page 51: "MRS. CARLTON DIES; COMPOSED LULLABY; Wrote 'Rock-a-Bye Baby' at Age of 15--Succumbs in Boston Hospital at 67 WAS ACTRESS 30 YEARS Played Opposite Gillette in 'Private Secretary' and in Own Repertory Group..."
- “The composer of the popular song, “Rock-a-Bye Baby”, which beautifully adapts and incorporates the old and familiar lullaby, is Miss Effie L. Canning, a young girl who was born and formerly lived in Rockland, Me. She is now a resident of Boston. Her success at either verse or music had not been especially great until, by a sort of sudden inspiration, she one day produced the now celebrated lullaby whose popularity, it is a pleasure to state, in the face of so many unlike instances, has been a source of much profit to the composer. Miss Canning is a tall, slender girl, with big brown eyes, full of the sympathy that finds its best expression in art.” New York Times, Wednesday September 10, 1893, Page 11).
- “Charles Dupee Blake, aged fifty-seven, widely known as a composer of popular music...died yesterday at his home in Brookline (Boston)...Mr. Blake composed more than 5,000 songs and pieces of music. Probably his best known work is Rock-a-Bye Baby.” New York Times, Wednesday November 25, 1903, p. 9.