Sing a Song of Sixpence

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"Sing a Song of Sixpence"
Roud #13191
Sing a sing of sixpence - illustration by Walter Crane - Project Gutenberg eText 18344.jpg
Walter Crane's illustration of the maid hanging out the clothes.
Written England
Published c. 1744
Form Nursery rhyme
Writer Traditional
Language English

"Sing a Song of Sixpence" is a well-known English nursery rhyme, perhaps originating in the 18th century. It is also listed in the Roud Folk Song Index as number 13191.


Cover illustration for by Randolph Caldecott's Sing a Song for Sixpence (1880)

A common modern version is:

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn't that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.[1]

The final line of the fourth verse is sometimes slightly varied, with nose pecked or nipped off. One of the following additional verses is often added to moderate the ending:

They sent for the king's doctor,
who sewed it on again;
He sewed it on so neatly,
the seam was never seen.[1]


There was such a commotion,
that little Jenny wren
Flew down into the garden,
and put it back again.[1]


The Queen Was in the Parlour, Eating Bread and Honey, by Valentine Cameron Prinsep.

The rhyme's origins are uncertain. References have been inferred in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (c. 1602), (Act II, Scene iii), where Sir Toby Belch tells a clown: "Come on; there is sixpence for you: let's have a song" and in Beaumont and Fletcher's Bonduca (1614), which contains the line "Whoa, here's a stir now! Sing a song o' sixpence!"[1][2]

In the past it has often been attributed to George Steevens (1736–1800), who used it in a pun at the expense of Poet Laureate Henry James Pye (1745–1813) in 1790, but the first verse had already appeared in print in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, published in London around 1744, in the form:

Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye,
Four and twenty Naughty Boys,
Baked in a Pye.[1]

The next printed version that survives, from around 1780, has two verses and the boys have been replaced by birds.[1] A version of the modern four verses is first extant in Gammer Gurton's Garland or The Nursery Parnassus published in 1784, which ends with a magpie attacking the unfortunate maid.[1] Fifth verses with the happier endings began to be added from the middle of the 19th century.[1]

Meaning and interpretations[edit]

Many interpretations have been placed on this rhyme. It is known that a 16th-century amusement was to place live birds in a pie, as a form of entremet. An Italian cookbook from 1549 (translated into English in 1598) contained such a recipe:[3] "to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up" and this was referred to in a cook book of 1725 by John Nott.[1][4] The wedding of Marie de' Medici and Henry IV of France in 1600 contains some interesting parallels. "The first surprise, though, came shortly before the starter—when the guests sat down, unfolded their napkins and saw songbirds fly out. The highlight of the meal were sherbets of milk and honey, which were created by Buontalenti."[5]

In The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie write that the rhyme has been tied to a variety of historical events or folklorish symbols such as the queen symbolizing the moon, the king the sun, and the blackbirds the number of hours in a day; or, as the authors indicate, the blackbirds have been seen as an allusion to monks during the period of Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, with Catherine of Aragon representing the queen, and Anne Boleyn the maid. The rye and the birds have been seen to represent a tribute sent to Henry VII, and on another level, the term "pocketful of rye" may in fact refer to an older term of measurement. The number 24 has been tied to the Reformation and the printing of the English Bible with 24 letters. From a folklorish tradition, the blackbird taking the maid's nose has been seen as a demon stealing her soul.[6]

No corroborative evidence has been found to support these theories and given that the earliest version has only one stanza and mentions "naughty boys" and not blackbirds, they can only be applicable if it is assumed that more recently printed versions accurately preserve an older tradition.[1]

References in popular culture[edit]

In music[edit]

  • Mike d'Abo used the first verse in the song "Handbags and Gladrags" with the slightly altered lyrics "bottle full of rye". The song was later made popular by Rod Stewart and Stereophonics, among others.
  • Two songs from The Beatles' White Album (1968) allude to this nursery rhyme: John Lennon's "Cry Baby Cry" and Paul McCartney's "Blackbird".
  • Distillation, the second album by musician Erin McKeown, features a song called "Blackbirds" that makes several allusions to the poem. It was released via Signature Sounds in 2000.
  • The lines "Sing a song of sixpence, pocket full of rye" are sung by Tom Waits in "Midnight Lullaby", from his album Closing Time (1973)
  • Crosby, Stills and Nash, Deja Vu's song, Four and twenty years.
  • Jethro Tull's "Mother Goose" features the lyrics "Four and twenty labourers were labouring." (1971)
  • Harry Enfield's "Loadsamoney" song has the line "Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of dosh!" near the end.


In print[edit]

  • Lord Byron parodied the nursery rhyme in the dedication of his narrative poem Don Juan, using it to mock the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey.[8]
  • Agatha Christie's short story, "Sing a Song of Sixpence", was first published in 1929. Her 1953 Miss Marple mystery, A Pocket Full of Rye, features the rhyme, and her 1960 short story collection, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, contains a story called "Four and Twenty Blackbirds".
  • A. J. Cronin's novel A Song of Sixpence (1964) and its sequel, A Pocketful of Rye (1969), take their titles from the rhyme.
  • The nursery rhyme was recited by the Scarecrow in DC Comics' Batman: The Long Halloween (1996 and 1997).
  • Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes (1982) contains the lines, "The king was in the counting house counting out the money. The queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey", in his poetic retelling of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs".
  • James Joyce used the lines, "The maid was in the garden" and "The King was in his counting house" in Ulysses, in the chapter “Calypso." In the next chapter, "Lotus Eaters," Bloom misquotes the line about the queen, saying "The Queen was in the bedroom" instead of "the Queen was in the parlor."
  • British cartoonist David Low drew a cartoon on Britain and France's appeasement policy in the 1930s where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier and Czech President Edvard Benes were seen eating a pie and Chamberlain has a bird on his spoon. The caption reads, "When the pie was opened the bird began to sing."
  • The song was among the forgotten rhymes Mr. Charrington suddenly mentioned in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
  • Virginia Woolf's last novel, Between the Acts, features the third verse as a recurring motif.
  • W.B. Yeats wrote, shortly before his death in a letter to Elizabeth Pelham: "...The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the song of sixpence."[citation needed]
  • A SpongeBob SquarePants episode is named "Sing a Song of Patrick".
  • One of the modern children's readers (small chapter books) uses the basic premise, but the plot then diversifies, as King spends the whole day personally paying his employees for their work (in the meantime becoming introduced to farm life), while the Queen spends her day in workout (to use up the calories) and helping others by donating her ball, skipping rope and riding horse to those in need. They are both depicted as nice persons who care about others. At the end the King bought a double bike with the leftover money and they both cycle away together.
  • Raymond Carver references the rhyme in the title of his short story 'Blackbird Pie', which featured in his last ever collection of short stories, Elephant'.

In Food[edit]

  • Four'N Twenty meat pie, Australia's most popular brand of pie took inspiration for its name and logo, featuring blackbirds flying out of a pie, from the nursery rhyme.

See also[edit]

  • Entremet or Subtlety, an elaborate form of dish common in Europe, particularly England and France, during the late Middle Ages


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 394-5.
  2. ^ Bonduca, act v, scene ii
  3. ^ Giovanni de Roselli's Epulario, quale tratta del modo de cucinare ogni carne, ucelli, pesci... (1549), of which an English translation, Epulario, or the Italian Banquet, was published in 1598 (Mary Augusta Scott, Elizabethan Translations from the Italian no. 256, p. 333f.).
  4. ^ Jenkins, Jessica Kerwin, The Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday,2010, p. 200-01
  5. ^ Blow out! History's 10 greatest banquets - Features, Food & Drink - The Independent
  6. ^ Opie, p. 471
  7. ^ "Showtime : The Tudors : Home". Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  8. ^ Marilee Mongello. "Don Juan: Dedication". Retrieved 2012-08-15. 

External links[edit]