Meanwhile, I shall regale you with a story of pirates, naughty deeds and shenanigans in the land of nursery rhymes and why you shouldn't believe all that you read. 'tis a cautionary tale I tell, wi' a curse, me proud buckos, and one that I've talked about in previous posts, notably hither and thither and yonder. OK, no more pirate talk (until International Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19th) anyway).
Just recently - on a site hosted by an American university* - I found a fascinating story. It explained in some depth that the children's rhyme Six a song of Sixpence had its origin in a coded set of messages devised by Edward Teach - the notorious pirate known as Blackbeard - to find new crew members.
Because piracy was illegal, captains couldn’t just advertise for crew. Therefore, they had a whole language of codes and ciphers to send word around when they were recruiting. Teach's code breaks down like this:
Sing a song of sixpence – Blackbeard paid sixpence a day to his crew – good wages in those days and unusually generous. Most pirates simply shared out the spoils of their work.
A pocket full of rye – The crew were also given a ‘pocket’ – a sealed leather bag of whisky along with their sixpence every day.
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, When the pie was opened the birds began to sing – is a reference to Blackbeard’s men or ‘birds’ hiding on board their ship (the ‘pie’) while pretending that the ship was in distress. This was one of Teach’s favourite tricks. Once a ship came to aid the supposedly stricken vessel, the crew would suddenly emerge from within the ship and attack their luckless saviour.
Was that not a tasty dish to set before a king? – The original rhyme mentions ‘A King’ not ‘The King’ and refers to Blackbeard himself.
The King was in his counting house, counting out his money – A menial task no real king would indulge in … but Blackbeard did. This line informed potential crewmen that Teach had the wherewithal to pay them.
The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey – Teach’s ship was a captured French merchantman originally called Le Concorde de Nantes. Blackbeard renamed it The Queen Anne's Revenge and it is the Queen referred to in this line. ‘Eating bread and honey’ meant that she was in the harbour (parlour) taking on supplies.
The Maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes – A ‘maid’ was a potential target for looting, usually a ship sailing around the Caribbean, known amongst sailors as 'The Garden'. ‘Hanging out the clothes’ meant that the target had sailed and its sails were hoisted.
When down came a blackbird and snapped off her nose! – There is some debate about whether the final line should read ‘her nose’ or ‘a rose’. Either way, it symbolises Blackbeard taking his prize.
So, to recap, the rhyme actually means … ‘Blackbeard’s ship is in the port and making ready to sail. A target has been sighted in the Caribbean Sea. Blackbeard is going to sail out there and use his ship as a lure by pretending to be in distress. When the target comes to his aid, his crew will emerge from hiding, board the other vessel and steal the loot. Fancy being a part of this? Blackbeard has money to burn and is willing to pay you sixpence a day and an issue of Scotch. Yaarrr!’
Of course, it’s all a trouserful of nads. This imaginative explanation was deliberately created by urban myth debunking website Snopes to demonstrate the dangers of False Authority Syndrome. Snopes creators Barbara and David Mikkelson were keen to get across the message that you shouldn’t believe all that you read just because it appears to come from a reputable source. People make mistakes. Lazy reportage continues to propagate those mistakes. Snopes wanted to graphically demonstrate the pitfalls of the ‘I got it from X, therefore it must be true’ mindset. And they obviously did so.
The true origin of Sing a Song of Sixpence is unknown but we can only hope that it doesn’t describe real historical events. Taken in its literal sense, it would be the ghastly story of a poor laundry woman being savaged and mutilated by a large rapacious bird. Her subsequent lack of a nose would have seriously compromised her olfactory sense.
How does she smell?
I won't even dignify that with a punchline.
* And I won't shame the University by naming them and they have since taken the story down. Oh, and the Blackbeard picture is by me.