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Urban Legends

Sing a Song of Sixpence

The Legend

The nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence" originated as a coded message so that professional folklorists could identify one another.


Behind the Legend

It is not uncommon for innocent sounding songs to have secret meanings -- "Three Blind Mice" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," for example. But how many of us realize that even the nonsense verse of our childhood is often filled with references to deadly plagues, the deaths of martyrs, and Illuminati conspiracies? Let's take for example the familiar rhyme, "Sing a Song of Sixpence."

The song goes as follows:

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 tasty dish
To set before a King?

The King was in his counting house
Counting out his money.
The Queen was in the parlor
Eating bread and honey.

The Maid was in the garden
Hanging out the clothes.
When down came a blackbird
And snapped off her nose!

The surprising truth is that this simple song was written as a means by which early American folklorists could identify one another!

In the early years of folklore study, folklorists were a secretive bunch. Akin to the Pythagorians, they considered their knowledge and insights into the transmission of legends and lore to be a source of incredible power. By dropping a reference to a vanishing hitchhiker along a certain road, or mentioning that the rest area in a particular place of commerce was where a child was abducted and only identified by his shoes, they could send rumor running like wildfire and change the very face of the country.

Because the network of folklorists stretched across the country, not all members knew each other by sight. Thus rose the necessity of a form of introduction both unambiguous and innocent sounding, and "Sing a Song of Sixpence was born.

As folklorists ourselves, we are sworn to a blood oath not to reveal all of this song's deep secrets. However, the folklore community has loosened up quite a bit of late and in any case we used fake blood when we took the oath, so here goes.

"Sing a song of sixpence": These are the six basic genre of folklore -- tall tales, horror or "campfire" tales, recounted stories, shared history, songs, and urban legends.

"A pocket full of rye": A reference to the first truly all-American piece of folklore, the story of Benjamin Franklin arriving in town with just enough money for two loaves of bread.

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie": Symbolically the living tradition within the "sweet" of a transmitted tale.

"When the pie was opened the birds began to sing": If one knows how to interpret folklore and observes its transmission, the truths will be revealed.

"Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before a King?": The "King" of folklore is famed folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand.

The balance of the song tells about how the "King" innumerate modern urban legends so that his followers (collectively "the Queen") could feed on the fruits of his labor. On their coattails comes "the Maid," a folklorist wannabee who takes the research of real folklorists and presents it as her own "hangs it up like clothes." It is hoped that the truth will leave this thief defaced.


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