5 Terrifying Origin Stories Behind Popular Children's Songs

As nauseatingly wholesome as children's songs may seem, sometimes there are corpses buried under those mountains of spaghetti, and axe murderers behind those rainbows. Whether that's a case of the original lyrics being intentionally omitted, or just a complete misunderstanding of what the song was trying to say in the first place, there's something a little disconcerting about hearing third graders sing these songs in their pure little voices while knowing what they're really about ...

#5. "London Bridge Is Falling Down"

How We Know It Today:

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

We suppose it's pretty messed up to write an ode to shoddy civil engineering, but really, how bad could this be?

Aside from all those suicides, nothing sinister ever happens on bridges!

What It Actually Means:

It's a song about starving children to death.

There have been a lot of theories over the years as to what the collapse of the London Bridge in the song means. Some believe that it refers to Viking attacks back in the 11th century. As no documented records of such an attack on the bridge exist, however, we'll instead focus on a different interpretation: immurement. Don't know the term? Well then, here's a new reason to drink in the morning!

Immurement is the practice of entombing someone within a structure, where they slowly die from lack of food and water (not to be confused with being buried alive, where you mercifully just get to suffocate). The tradition is centuries old, based on the belief that such sacrifices would ensure the stability of the structures in which people were imprisoned.

It was thought too awful to be anything but myth, but some documented cases have been recorded: They turned up a slew of bodies within the walls of several old European structures, including castles, churches and, in the case of Bremen, Germany, at least one bridge. In other words, London Bridge is most likely a reference to the sacrifice of a child within the bridge's base to serve as an "eternal watchman."

Murdering children was the duct tape of the ancient world.

Still not convinced? There's a game that children often play while singing this little ditty, where two of them join hands to form an arch, and the others take turns running underneath until the end of the song, at which point the hands are lowered and the last child is captured within. That's right: Your kids are out there on the playground right now, practicing ritual sacrifice.

And you thought video games were teaching them some bad behavior ...

#4. "Blow the Man Down"

How We Know It Today:

I'll sing you a song, a good song of the sea
With a way, hey, blow the man down
And trust that you'll join in the chorus with me
Give me some time to blow the man down.

A sea shanty turned popular children's tune, the song is practically a default inclusion on any vaguely outdoor-themed musical compilation. So, let's see, it talks about the ocean and an "old skipper" -- there must have been a bad storm or something that caused him to get blown down, right?

Let's just pretend that's the only explanation for the term that occurred to any of us.

What It Actually Means:

Just wait 'til we get out to sea first, then you can start abusing the workers.

Being "blown down" doesn't refer to a strong wind, or anything else you probably suspect about a bunch of men stuck at sea for long, lonely periods (*cough*). During the 18th century, when the song originated, "blow the man down" was slang for a man being knocked to the ground, either from in-crew fighting or from the ships' officers inflicting a little discipline.

The lash. Better for discipline than sodomy, not quite as effective as rum.

As a sea shanty, there are numerous alternate verses of the song. Several versions include mention of a "Black Baller" -- a ship designed for fast transport during the second half of the 19th century. They were one of the quickest ways to travel among major cities, but not always the safest. They were notorious for being hard on their crews, with the captain and officers often signing up ignorant first time sailors and then regularly dishing out harsh beatings as soon as the ship got out to sea. Some original lyrics in "Blow the Man Down" read: "When the Black Baller gets clear of the land / 'Tis then you will hear the great word of command."

As a side note, the first mates were known as "blowers," while the third mates were "greasers." Sadly, our research shows that the companion song "Grease the Black Balled Blower Down" failed to catch on, for some reason.

#3. "Jimmy Crack Corn"

How We Know It Today:

Jimmy crack corn and I don't care,
Jimmy crack corn and I don't care,
Jimmy crack corn and I don't care,
My master's gone away.

We're guessing the whole "master's gone away" line is probably going to be the source of the trouble here. Although admittedly, that's apropos of nothing: We have no idea who Jimmy is, or why everybody is so indifferent to his zealous corn-fracturing.

What It Actually Means:

Some dude fell off a horse and died; let's get hammered!

Called "Blue-Tail Fly" when it was first written in the 1840s, the original lyrics weren't "Jimmy crack corn," but rather "Jim crack corn" (that's not just us standing on formality; we'll use that info in a second). If you actually read through the full song lyrics, it tells the story of an unhappy slave whose job is to follow around his horseback-riding master and shoo away the flies. However, a "blue-tail fly" bites the horse, causing it to buck, and the master to be thrown and killed. An investigation follows, for which the slave avoids being blamed for the death (well, that's a weird thing to cut: Why didn't the captured servant's murder investigation make it into the children's recital?).

And how many times did that blue-tail fly kill again?

Now, remember what we said about the refrain, that it used to be "Jim crack corn"? A quick search of Ye Olde English Dictionary finds that "Jim crack" or "gimcrack" used to mean "cheap," and "corn" was shorthand for corn whiskey. In other words, what at first sounds like a lament from a strangely loyal slave suddenly reads like the man is kickin' back and enjoying some cheap booze after his jerk master's "accident." It makes way more sense this way: Nobody would mourn the death of a corn-loving slave driver, but of course an oppressed slave would celebrate his temporary freedom with a cheap bottle of rotgut. We're not saying the song is bad or anything; rejoicing at the death of evil isn't necessarily evil itself. Still, it means your children are singing a song about gettin' fucked up on Everclear to commemorate that time a guy got his brains bashed in.

Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)
Makes most rap music seem kinda tame, huh?

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