Ally bally, Ally bally bee: the disturbing nature of nursery rhymes

Can we all acknowledge that the world of nursery rhymes is as grotesque and barbaric as that of Grimms’ Fairy Tales? We’ve got Humpty Dumpty, broken beyond repair. There are blackbirds which peck off noses, and did you know that the woman who lived in the shoe with all those children resorted to whipping them all soundly and then packing them off to bed? 

I worry about how to explain this universe to my daughter. She’s obsessed with nursery rhymes at the moment, and with trying to finding a context for them in her own life. She already searches for her own stuffed sheep after we read about Bo Peep’s desperate search; surely it’s only a matter of time before she’s brainstorming military strategy in the manner of the Grand Old Duke of York. 

There’s something which feels very ritualistic and almost occult about these rhymes which have endured for generations, often coming alongside a set of prescribed actions. The turns of phrase used are odd, and I find that we recite them blindly, without stopping to consider the meaning attached. Is ‘Ring-a-ring of roses’ truly about the plague or is that just apocryphal? Is ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary’ actually an allegory about the Tudor court? 

In Scotland, all toddlers get given a free CD of nursery rhymes from the Scottish Book Trust. This is a genuinely lovely initiative and my own toddler has had great fun dancing to these. And yet there’s one in particular which stands out for me even amongst the weirdness of all the rest. I don’t think it’s well known outside of Scotland, so here’s the first verse below:

Ally bally, ally bally bee,

Sittin’ on yer mammy’s knee,

Greetin’ for a wee bawbee,

Tae buy some Coulter’s candy.

If the Scots language has bemused you, this is indeed about a child crying for money with which to buy sweets. I’m not musical so I can’t talk about keys or anything like that, but this nursery rhyme is intoned soft and slow, at odd with the rather harsh meaning. I didn’t first come across this on the CD we received. This is a mainstay of baby groups here in Scotland. I’ve heard it at every single free library Bookbugs music session we’ve attended, as well as at other music classes, including a lovely guitar rendition by a well-known local folk singer. 

But what is Coulter’s candy and why are we singing about it? This little ditty is in fact an advertising jingle from the 19th century. Robert Coltart wrote it to help sell his aniseed flavoured confectionary, at least according to wikipedia. Apparently the recipe has been lost to time, and Coltart’s songwriting must have been better than his pastry work, as seemingly he died penniless, buried alone in a pauper’s grave. 

Generally, I’ve only heard the first verse repeated at groups, which makes sense although the song does go on beyond this. There are more bossy extortions to children to emotionally blackmail their parents to obtain candy, or failing that to go straight to the next obvious solution of running away to sea to earn some money to be spent on candy. It all gets a bit grim in the second verse, with the description of a child as ‘A rickle o’ banes’ covered over with skin’. Candy comes to the rescue and gives ‘Poor wee Jeanie’ a double chin, but that’s perhaps almost as problematic in this time of childhood obesity. Coltart couldn’t resist some more self-aggrandising in later verses, including the line ‘Coulter he’s a affa funny man’. As this turned out to be his only legacy I suppose we can’t really blame him. 

There’s something so tragicomic about all the solemn recitations of this song at playgroups across Scotland, not to mention the fact it’s survived when both its author and the product it’s selling have not. I can’t help thinking of a post-apocalyptic society where our children’s lullabies are variations on the McDonald’s jingle, long after the golden arches have crumbled to dust and we’ve all forgotten what McFlurries taste like. 

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