I first came across this nursery rhyme in an illustrated book when I was about 7 or 8 years old. I’d never heard or read or seen anything quite like it before. I think it marked a certain loss of innocence, a dawning realisation in my young mind that the world could be a dark, dark place. It has stayed with me all these years and from time to time I find myself humming the tune.
Now it occurs to me that the story is the kind of thing that would give children the heebie-jeebies. If it had been written in the 21st century, you can imagine that the people who police such things would deem it inappropriate to tout it as a children’s ditty. Especially with that title which doesn’t sugar-coat how the story plays out.
Here’s my friend and sometime collaborator, Mikey Kirkpatrick of Bird Radio, taking it to some place very murky indeed. It hasn’t escaped my notice that with a name like Bird Radio, this folk song was crying out for Mikey to cover it.
And Disney’s sanitised version of it in the 1935 film where it’s been transformed into a love story that has a happy ending because the shooter was Cupid just doing his thing.
Nobody seems to know the exact origin of the song. Wikipedia gives various sources of how the tale might have come about but there’s no definitive answer. I’m drawn to the Robin Hood version myself. Yes, it’s a bit convenient that the victim shares the same name but can it be any coincidence that it’s set in a forest and everybody is lamenting his demise?
- That the rhyme records a mythological event, such as the death of the god Balder from Norse mythology, or the ritual sacrifice of a king figure, as proposed by early folklorists as in the ‘Cutty Wren‘ theory of a ‘pagan survival’.
- That it is a parody of the death of William Rufus, who was killed by an arrow in the New Forest (Hampshire) in 1100.
- That the rhyme is connected with the fall of the government of Robert Walpole in 1742, since Robin is a diminutive form of Robert and the first printing is close to the time of the events mentioned.
- More recently internet speculation has associated the rhyme with Robin Hood, largely, it seems on the basis of a shared name.