5 Terrifying Origin Stories Behind Popular Children's Songs

#2. "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush"

How We Know It Today:

Here we go 'round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go 'round the mulberry bush
So early in the morning.

There are different variations of the song out there, but most contain stanzas dealing with household chores or personal hygiene ("This is the way we scrub the floors," "This is the way we wash our face," etc). So, we're looking at either a song meant to teach children good household chore practices, or an OCD sufferer's uncharacteristically jaunty list of symptoms.

"This is the way we wash our hands, until they bleed, until they bleed ..."

What It Actually Means:

Do your chores or the guards will beat you.

Former warden R.S. Duncan makes the case that a prison in Wakefield, England, served as the original inspiration for the song. In the mid-1800s, the prison added women to its population, and the theory holds that female inmates would sing the song while they exercised with their children around a central mulberry bush in the prison yard.

Welcome to Wakefield
On the plus side, at least those child convicts didn't have to miss their mommies.

Man, if they weren't burying them alive, they were locking them away for crimes their mothers committed: Old-timey England sure hated them some children.

Throughout its lengthy history, the Wakefield prison had many problems with overcrowding and unsanitary conditions (including outbreaks of cholera and typhoid among the population). As described by one official in 1774: "This prison is unfortunately built upon low ground; so it is damp and exposed to floods. A prison on ground so low as this requires the utmost attention to cleanliness." So yes, those "brush your hair" and "wash your face" lyrics are pretty quaint, and they teach the kids some good grooming habits, but when you consider that the unspoken implication is "sweep the floor or you'll die of typhoid," it kind of loses a little cuteness, doesn't it?

#1. "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain"


How We Know It Today:

She'll be coming 'round the mountain
When she comes
She'll be coming 'round the mountain
When she comes.

So ... she's coming ... we're all really excited about it ... can't we just leave it at that? Please?

Just imagine this, but with six white horses instead of a few diseased donkeys.

What It Actually Means:

Everybody is going to die. Like, tomorrow.

Some theories argue that the song is exactly what it sounds like: celebrating the arrival of a supply train. Others believe it's a metaphor for Mary Harris "Mother" Jones organizing coal miner labor unions. But the real origin is even darker: "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" is actually based on a slave-era spiritual called "When the Chariot Comes." The two songs share the same melody, structure and even some lyrics -- the iconic "when she comes" chant is present in both versions.

Notably different, though, are original lyrics like "King Jesus, he'll be driver when she comes" and "She'll be loaded with bright angels when she comes." "When the Chariot Comes" and, by extension, "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain," are both songs about the Rapture -- the day when Jesus comes back to earth to play favorites. "She" actually refers to the chariot he'll be riding down to bring about the End of Days. You know, like how we give boats and cars feminine properties -- this is the same thing, just for Christ's big ol' Rapturous Red Flyer.

If you're going to end all life on earth, you might as well do it in style.

So there you have it: That merry old-timey prospector song your kids are singing out in the yard is actually rejoicing about the imminent death of all humanity. Why don't you go outside and explain that to them? Maybe the kids will be so taken with your mastery of trivia that they'll stop calling you "Becky's Weirdo Downer Dad."

You can read more of John's work at his website.

For more meanings in music that you're probably unaware of, check out 6 Famous Songs That Don't Mean What You Think. Or learn about 5 Famous Hidden Song Meanings (That Are Total B.S.).

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 3 Museum-Worthy Finds That People Ate Instead.

And stop by LinkSTORM to learn which columnist knows all the lyrics to "I Want to Sex You Up."

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