No matter what type of household you grew up in or where you live in the US, nursery rhymes are a staple of many childhoods. In fact, if you rounded up a group of adults and asked them to try and recite a favorite nursery rhyme from memory, chances are they would all have something to offer (especially parents).
One of the more common examples of nursery rhymes is ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.’ While many people may have their own spin on it, the most common variant on the rhyme is:
Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
The first time the rhyme was published with its familiar melody (based off an 18th century French tune) was all the way back in 1879, by A. H. Rosewig in (Illustrated National) Nursery Songs and Games.
Is ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ Politically Incorrect?
In and of itself, the rhyme seems harmless. It is just talking about sheep, afterall. However, some older pieces can have coded language that seems harmless enough at first glance, but may actually have a hidden darker meaning.
In the case of ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’, controversy first started in the 1980s and 1990s, when a few parents in the United Kingdom started to complain that their children were being taught a song that alluded to slavery. The reasoning here was that the titular “black sheep” was a reference to African slaves, with the wool referencing them being forced to work on farms.
In time, however, it became clear that the political climate in the UK had created a controversy where there really wasn’t one. It had been reported that one school district had banned the nursery rhyme. This prompted allegations in the media and from other parents that the district was overreacting. The district later clarified that there was no such ban, just optional racial sensitivity courses.
Later, the story reappeared in an Australian school district. In this case, they opted to introduce a rainbow sheep instead of the traditional black sheep. So we may not be done with the debate just yet.
The Real Meaning of ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’
The origins of the nursery rhyme date back to 18th century Britain, at a time when Britain was in fact trading slaves to its colonies. But they were not necessarily using these slaves to work farmland in the way we traditonally assosiate with slavery in the US. Also, it would be uncommon for slaves in the UK to be handling wool at that time. So most scholars believe that ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ is not a reference to slavery.
As with most nursery rhymes, we may never know the exact source. But experts believe ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ dates back further in British History, to medieval times and something called the Great Custom. In this era, the wool trade was big in England, mainly due to the high demand for it to make cloth. However, when Edward I returned from The Crusades, he needed extra money to pay for his military expeditions. So he introduced new wool taxes (aka the Great Custom).
The master and dame in the rhyme likely represent the nobility who were taking a portion of the wool as taxes (and not a nice old couple wanting to buy something to knit with). When we look to the original ending: “And none for the little boy who lives down the lane,” the original intention makes more sense. This was changed to make for a more upbeat tale later on.
Sometimes, a Sheep Is Just a Sheep
While it’s true that some stories that were considered childhood classics some time ago take on a more offensive tone today, this isn’t the case with all of them, and ‘Baa Baa, Black Sheep’ is one nursery rhyme that you can recite guilt-free. However, ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ isn’t the only example of a nursery rhyme that carries hidden meaning and history.
Check out the truth (and myths) behind the origins of Ring Around The Rosie for another story about how historical context and modern interpretation can get twisted around.