Our Kids Are Singing About Child Sacrifice

by Claire Zlotnicki

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When my sisters and I were young, my dad used to sit one of us on his lap and thump on our back and chant “Hurley-burley, thumpety whack! Pretty good fellow, pretty good back! How many fingers do I hold up?” He would pause for us to guess a number, then resume the chant. “Two, she said, and three there were. Pretty good fellow to go to the war!”

Nobody I’ve talked to knows where this rhyme comes from—maybe it’s about sending child soldiers to war, or about the arbitrary nature of death. Often, those people tried to look  at simple nursery rhymes and try to find dark or scary origins for them. But most nursery rhymes, I’ve found, weren’t even created for children—they were the jumbled together songs and poems that tired mothers brought into the nursery, searching for anything to soothe a crying child. In fact, most nursery rhymes probably don’t mean anything, although one of the few that might have dark origins is “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Archeological evidence supports the claim that “London Bridge” is about human sacrifice—specifically, the practice of burying children in the foundations of a bridge to keep it standing. Though there are no findings of human remains in the current-day London Bridge, other old bridges have been found with human remains. Many of us have played the children’s game that goes with the song—two kids form an arch with their arms which falls to catch one of the others passing underneath. Maybe that “caught” person represents the victim of superstitious bridge-builders of the past.

But does the fact that this familiar chant might be about child sacrifice mean I shouldn’t tell it to my children one day? Or that I shouldn’t pass down my father’s rhyme? No, I think it means I should. Nobody knows what my father’s untraceable chant or “London Bridge” or “Ring Around the Rosie” are really about, but the world is still as dangerous a place as it was back then. We can make up our own stories as we go along, but the origins we give them today will be no better than the ones they might really have. Human nature hasn’t improved over the centuries. Old stories about children with candles who were killed to protect an ancient bridge aren’t fooling anyone that we’re better off today—not even our kids.


Claire Zlotnicki is pursuing a Women’s and Gender Studies degree at the College of Charleston. She graduated from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Creative Writing. She is from Florence, South Carolina.

Interview: Saro Lynch-Thomason

Saro Lynch-Thomason singing ballads on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Saro Lynch-Thomason singing ballads on the Blue Ridge Parkway

I lived in Appalachia for four years, and it’s there that I encountered–and fell in love with–Appalachian ballad singing. Sparse and haunting, ballads are usually sung without instrumentation and tell melancholy tales of betrayal and lost love. Many draw on traditional literature–like folklore and fairy tales–and the medieval romance tradition. I wanted to know more, so I asked my friend Saro Lynch-Thomason, a folklorist and ballad singer, a few questions.

Lynch-Thomason–who is based in Asheville, North Carolina–is also an illustrator, author, and social activist. In 2012 she completed Blair Pathways: A Musical Exploration of America’s Largest Labor Uprising–a researched compilation of over 20 historic songs from West Virginia’s labor wars. Saro has led the Asheville Community Sing since 2010 and regularly teaches regional ballad workshops, Wassailing choruses, and May Day choruses on social justice themes. In 2013, Saro completed her solo CD Vessel–an acappella compilation of ballads and songs from Appalachia and the British Isles. Her distinct, powerful singing style transports audiences to Appalachian mountain hollers, 19th-century coal camps and old meeting houses.

(As a heads up, this interview mentions sexual assault.)

Ballad singing traveled from the British Isles to Appalachia, where you live. Can you tell me a little bit about ballad singing, how it originated and how it ended up in the U.S. Mountain South?

Ballads as they are often referred to today reference a particular story-song form that has been in Europe for nearly 1,000 years. Often a ballad involves first or third person narration, a simple rhyme scheme and a repeated melody. In the 1100s and 1200s, this form of storytelling was popular across what is modern-day France and Spain. A class of minstrels, supported by nobility, traveled and composed poetry and songs in this format. Over 2,000 poems have survived from this period, along with hundreds of melodies.

Since then there have been several periods of songwriting popularity, during which everyone from nobles to peasants took an interest in creating and singing their own ballads. Many ballads were written in the Middle Ages, about 300 of which survive today. But many ballads come from a revival period that began in the 1600s and had its heyday with the creation of the letterpress. People wrote and dispersed songs across Europe and America, drawing on old melodies and themes but with updated characters and political messaging.

During this period many ballads came to America, brought by immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland who arrived throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Immigrants families carried and adapted these songs for generations as they worked and settled across the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, the Piedmont in North Carolina, and the Appalachian Mountains. These song styles became dispersed into Afro-Appalachian communities as well, where people continued to change them.

Continue reading Interview: Saro Lynch-Thomason