Aretha Franklin

Ask Billboard: 'Rockabye' & A History of Charted Nursery Rhymes

Rita Zimmermann
Clean Bandit

Like Clean Bandit, acts from The Beatles to Madonna & more have mined nursery rhymes for hit songs.

Submit questions about Billboard charts, as well as general music musings, to askbb@billboard.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S. Or, tweet @gthot20

Hi Gary,

So glad that Clean Bandit's "Rockabye" has made it into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, leaping 24-9 on the March 25-dated chart. Sean Paul's rap is impeccable, Anne-Marie's vocals are perfect and, yes, it even has a message ("for all the single moms out there").

"Rockabye," of course, is based partly on "Rock-a-bye Baby," perhaps the most famous nursery rhyme in the English language (and appears to date back to 1765). That got me thinking: how many times have nursery rhymes been referenced in hit songs?

Let's gather 'round for a little chart history story time.

Starting in 1938, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" by Ella Fitzgerald stands out, to me, as one of the first No. 1 hits to incorporate a nursery rhyme. The tune was a 10-week best-selling record (20 years before the Hot 100's inception), according to Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954.

Twenty-five years later, "On Top of Old Smoky" was altered to the more appetizing "On Top of Spaghetti" by Tom Glazer and the Do-Re-Mi Children's Chorus. It hit No. 14 on the Hot 100 in 1963.

Oh, other words to "Rock-a-bye Baby" include (the unsettling, actually, like some nursery rhymes that were written with satirical or political undertones) "the cradle will rock, and "down will come baby, cradle and all." In 1974, Harry Chapin hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 with "Cat's in the Cradle" (later taken to No. 6 by Ugly Kid Joe, in 1993). The song also mentions "Little Boy Blue," not to be confused with Cyndi Lauper's "Boy Blue," a No. 71 Hot 100 entry in 1987.

Aretha Franklin's "The House That Jack Built" hit No. 10 on the Hot 100 in 1968, and the Queen of Soul made reference to another nursery rhyme, "Humpty Dumpty," in her No. 26 hit in 1972, "All the King's Horses." Speaking of that fragile character without egg-cellent balance, Digital Underground reached No. 11 with "The Humpty Dance" in 1990.

"Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candlestick," Don McLean sings in his 1972 No. 1 "American Pie." That was four years after The Rolling Stones had taken "Jumpin' Jack Flash" to No. 3. In 1983, Jack was back again in the lyrics of Lindsey Buckingham's classic National Lampoon's Vacation theme, "Holiday Road," a No. 82 Hot 100 hit that feels much bigger thanks to the enduring appeal of the movie (as well as the song itself).

"Walk This Way" strutted to No. 10 on the Hot 100 in 1977 for Aerosmith and then No. 4 in 1986 for Run-D.M.C. (featuring the talents of Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry). Both versions contain the lyric, "Hey Diddle Diddle." (Run-D.M.C. also recorded the song "Peter Piper.")

"Jack and Jill," the first Hot 100 hit for Ray Parker, Jr.'s group Raydio, climbed to No. 8 on the Hot 100 in 1978. A year later, "It's Raining, It's Pouring" opened the No. 1 "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," a two-week topper for Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer.

Gregory Abbott plays "Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe" near the end of his 1987 No. 1, "Shake You Down." Plus, "Pop Goes the Weasel" was a top 40 Hot 100 hit (No. 29) for 3rd Bass in 1991.

As for other charts, we had a No. 1 R&B tune in 1988 called "Roses Are Red" by The Mac Band featuring The McCampbell Brothers. Lenny Kravitz famously sang "We've got to love and Rub-a-Dub" in his "Are You Gonna Go My Way," a No. 1 Mainstream Rock Songs hit in 1993. I also recall that Eric Benét (with Faith Evans featured) notched a No. 15 hit on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs in 1999, "Georgy Porgy," adapted from "Georgie Porgie."

Ok, it's getting late. Just few more charted nursery rhymes, aka, bedtime stories … to evoke Madonna's 1994 album Bedtime Stories, a No. 3 hit on the Billboard 200 that generated the almost-title cut, "Bedtime Story," which peaked at No. 42 on the Hot 100 in 1995 (after her first 32 entries on the chart had all hit the top 40). Of course, Madonna's first of 28 top five hits, "Lucky Star," is driven by its refrain of "Star Light, Star Bright." The song soared to No. 4 on the Hot 100 in 1984.

"Sticks and Stones"... well, that wording has been used quite a bit, including in "Titanium" (No. 7 on the Hot 100 in 2012) by David Guetta featuring Sia.

And, going back to the '70s, "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was an early hit for Wings, reaching No. 28 in 1972, two years after The Beatles had broken up. Speaking of … and, lest I be too English language-centric with this list, it was during a Beatles-only American Top 40 special broadcast that I learned from dear Casey Kasem that "Frère Jacques" was sung by John Lennon and George Harrison (on the third verse) on The Beatles' 1966 No. 1 "Paperback Writer." One can hear it as the English verse runs along, sung by Paul McCartney (all while the beat is kept by Ringo, that happy-go-lucky Starr).

Pablo Nelson
Oakland, California

This is great, Pablo. Jack could never be as nimble or quick as you when it comes to analyzing chart history.

And, maybe it's no surprise that nursery rhymes and pop music have been so intertwined, as they provide instant familiarity to listeners. They also have rhymes built-in, so an artist needs only to add (new) music to the mix.

What a fun and deep list above. There are only a few that I can think of to add, beginning with Fergie's debut solo hit "London Bridge," a three-week Hot 100 No. 1 in 2006 (before it started … falling down … the chart).

Pharrell Williams' 10-week 2014 Hot 100 No. 1 smash "Happy" invites us to "clap along," a play on the "If You're Happy and You Know It" nursery rhyme.

Plus, a couple from '90s alternative: XTC's "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" spent two weeks at No. 1 on Alternative Songs in 1992, borrowing from "Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater"; and, Aimee Mann (one of my favorite artists; her new album, Mental Illness, arrives March 31) hit No. 12 on Adult Alternative Songs in 1996 with "Choice in the Matter," which closes with her singing the title line from "Row Row Row Your Boat," although instead of "merrily down the stream," she sneers, "I hope you drown and never come up" (because, again, '90s alternative.) Mann, formerly the frontwoman of 'til tuesday, further released her own original song called "Humpty Dumpty" in 2002.

Meanwhile, Clean Bandit's "Rockabye" is the latest hit from the lullaby branch of nursery rhymes. If it can rise two more notches on the Hot 100, it will match the peak of Shawn Mullins' "Lullaby," a No. 7 hit in 1998, and which may be thought of more for its "ev-er-y-thing's gonna be alright, rockabye" hook.

The Cure and Nickelback have also hit the Hot 100 with songs called "Lullaby." The former reached No. 74 in 1989 and the latter, No. 89 in 2011. In between, Billy Joel's piano ballad "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)" ascended to No. 77 in 1994.

I think that about covers it. Actually, I do have a question: Is the Jack in "Jack and Jill" Jack Flash, from "Jack Be Nimble"? Or is he "Jack Sprat"? Or, "Little Jack Horner"? Or, is he the Jack that built, um, the house that Jack built, of "This Is the House That Jack Built" fame? It appears that the last name of Jack in "Jack and Jill" has never been revealed, just that Jack is a common lead in multiple nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

Why does it matter? Well, with whom did Jill go up the hill? And, if they got married, is she … Jill Flash? Or … Jill Sprat? Or … Jill Horner? Isn't it about time that we know the last name of the Jill who may or may not have, for the last two-and-a-half centuries, give or take, been living in the house that Jack (last name unclear) built? (And, would that house happen to have an extremely overgrown beanstalk?)

How do we find out? Eh, maybe an artist will write a hit song about it.