“Hush-a-bye Baby” is perhaps the best-known lullaby in the English language, often sung to the tune of Henry Purcell’s 1686 quickstep Lillibullero. It first appears in print in John Newbery’s Mother Goose’s Melody (c. 1765), but its age is uncertain:[1]

Hush-a-bye, Baby, on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bow breaks the cradle will fall,
Down will come baby, cradle, and all.[1]

See caption
illustration from The April Baby’s Book of Tunes, by Kate Greenaway

Some later versions alter the opening words to “Rock-a-bye”, first recorded in Benjamin Tabart’s Songs for the Nursery (1805).[2]


In the words of A Dictionary of English Folklore, “Nursery rhymes have suffered the indignity of having more nonsense written about them than any other folklore genre”,[3] and “Hush-a-bye Baby” is no exception. Commenting that “imaginations have been stretched to give the rhyme significance”, the folklorists Iona and Peter Opie have reported several explanations of the meaning of the rhyme, without endorsing any of them.[1]

  • the baby represents the Egyptian deity Horus
  • the first line is a corruption of the French “He bas! là le loup!” (Hush! There’s the wolf!)
  • it was written by an English Mayflower colonist who observed the way Native American women rocked their babies in birch-bark cradles, suspended from the branches of trees
  • it is a lampoon of the British royal line in the time of James II



Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1997.
Staff writer. “Nursery Rhymes.” A Dictionary of English Folklore, edited by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, Online, Oxford University Press, 2003, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198607663.001.0001/acref-9780198607663-e-749.
Styles, Morag. From the Garden to the Street: An Introduction to 300 Years of Poetry for Children. Cassell, 1998.

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