The first printed version from Mother Goose's Melody (London, c. 1765), has the following lyrics:
- Rock-a-by baby
- On the tree top,
- When the wind blows
- The cradle will rock.
- When the bough breaks,
- The cradle will fall,
- And down will fall baby
- Cradle and all.
The version from Songs for the Nursery (London, 1805), contains the wording:
- Rock-a-bye, baby, thy cradle is green,
- Father's a nobleman, mother's a queen...
Alternate Lyrics as shown in The Real Mother Goose published in 1916:
- Rock-a-bye, baby, thy cradle is green;
- Father's a nobleman, mother's a queen;
- And Betty's a lady, and wears a gold ring;
- And Johnny's a drummer, and drums for the king.
The most common version used today is:
- Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,
- When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
- When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
- And down will come baby, cradle and all.
Origins and development
Various theories exist to explain the origins of the rhyme.
One theory suggests the rhyme narrates a mother gently rocking her baby to sleep, as if the baby were riding the treetops during a breeze; then, when the mother lowers the baby to her crib, the song says "down will come baby."
Another identifies the rhyme as the first poem written on American soil, suggesting it dates from the 17th century and that it may have been written by an English immigrant who observed the way native-American women rocked their babies in birch-bark cradles, which were suspended from the branches of trees, allowing the wind to rock the baby to sleep. A difficulty with this theory is that the words appeared in print first in England c. 1765.
In Derbyshire, England, local legend has it that the song relates to a local character in the late 18th century, Betty Kenny (Kate Kenyon), who lived with her charcoal-burner husband, Luke, and their eight children in a huge yew tree in Shining Cliff Woods in the Derwent Valley, where a hollowed-out bough served as a cradle. However this "late 1700s" date is incompatible with the poem's appearance in print c. 1765.
Yet another theory has it that the lyrics, like the tune "Lilliburlero" it is sung to, refer to events immediately preceding the Glorious Revolution. The baby is supposed to be the son of James VII and II, who was widely believed to be someone else's child smuggled into the birthing room in order to provide a Roman Catholic heir for James. The "wind" may be that Protestant "wind" or force "blowing" or coming from the Netherlands bringing James' nephew and son-in-law William of Orange, who would eventually depose King James II in the revolution (the same "Protestant Wind" that had saved England from the Spanish Armada a century earlier). The "cradle" is the royal House of Stuart. The earliest recorded version of the words in print appeared with a footnote, "This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last", which may be read as supporting a satirical meaning. It would help to substantiate the suggestion of a specific political application for the words however if they and the 'Lilliburlero' tune could be shown to have been always associated.
Another possibility is that the words began as a "dandling" rhyme - one used while a baby is being swung about and sometimes tossed and caught. An early dandling rhyme is quoted in The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book which has some similarity:
- Catch him, crow! Carry him, kite!
- Take him away till the apples are ripe;
- When they are ripe and ready to fall,
- Here comes baby, apples and all.
The words first appeared in print in Mother Goose's Melody (London, c. 1765), possibly published by John Newbery (1713–1767), and which was reprinted in Boston in 1785. Rock-a-bye as a phrase was first recorded in 1805 in Benjamin Tabart's Songs for the Nursery, (London, 1805).
It is unclear though whether these early rhymes were sung to either of the now-familiar tunes. At some time however the Lilliburlero-based tune and the 1796 lyric, with the word "Hush-a-bye" replaced by "Rock-a-bye", must have come together and achieved a new popularity. A possible reference to this re-emergence is in an advertisement in The Times newspaper in 1887 for a performance in London by a minstrel group featuring a "new" American song called 'Rock-a-bye':
This minstrel song, whether substantially the same as the nursery rhymes quoted above or not, was clearly an instant hit: a later advertisement for the same company in the paper's October 13 edition promises that "The new and charming American ballad, called ROCK-A-BYE, which has achieved an extraordinary degree of popularity in all the cities of America will be SUNG at every performance."
If this is, in fact, the same song, then this implies that it was an American composition and already popular there. An article in the New York Times of August 1891 (p. 1) refers to the tune being played in a parade in Asbury Park, N.J. and clearly by this date the song was well established in America. Newspapers of the period, however, credit its composition to two separate persons, both resident in Boston: one is Effie Canning (later referred to as Mrs. Effie D. Canning Carlton and the other the composer Charles Dupee Blake.
- Book Lover, 1904: quoted in I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, (O.U.P., 1951).
- H. Carpenter and M. Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 326.
- "Ambergate Walk leaflet" (PDF). Ambervalley.gov.uk.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, (O.U.P., 1951), p. 61.
- I Opie, and P. Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (O.U.P., 1955) p. 10.
- Morag Styles, From the garden to the street: an introduction to 300 years of poetry for children (Cassell, 1998),p. 105.
- 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.