April 16, 2009

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa Baa Black Sheep is a nursery rhyme, sung to a variant of the 1761 French melody Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman. The original form of the tune is used for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the Alphabet song. The words have changed little in two and a half centuries.

William Wallace Denslow's illustrations for Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, from a 1901 edition of Mother Goose

Origins and meaning
As with many nursery rhymes attempts have been made to find origins and meanings for the rhyme. These include:

* A description of the medieval 'Great' or 'Old Custom' wool tax of 1275, which survived until the fifteenth century. Contrary to some commentaries, this tax did not involve the collection of one third to the king, and one third to the church, but a less punitive sum of 6s 8d to the Crown per sack, about 5 per cent of the value. This theory also depends on the rhyme surviving unrecorded and even unmentioned in extant texts for hundreds of years.

* A connection to the slave trade. This explanation was advanced during debates over political correctness and the use and reform of nursery rhymes in the 1980s, but scholars agree that it has no basis in fact.

The black sheep, according to Denslow