14 Songs Referencing Nursery Rhymes

14 Songs Referencing Nursery Rhymes

David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly in a scene from the movie Labyrinth, 1986. Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images.

Who knew the rhymes we learn as children also played a key part in so many classic songs? From The Clash and Korn through to The Beatles and Bobby Darin, here’s a shortlist of tracks indebted to archaic children’s verses. When inspiration is low, simply turn to Old Mother Goose’s Rhymes…

1. David Bowie | "Heroes"

It’s been voted his greatest song, but many David Bowie fans might be unaware his 1977 song “Heroes” subtly references "Lavender’s Blue". Bowie’s line “When I am king, you will be queen” is drawn from the nursery rhyme, which was originally published in the 1670s. During Bowie’s Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983, he would introduce "Heroes" with an a cappella rendition of "Lavender’s Blue"’s chorus. English prog-rockers Marillion also used the nursery rhyme as the basis for their 1985 song "Lavender”.

2. David Bowie | "Magic Dance"

While it might be cheating a little to include another Bowie song, the man referenced so many nursery rhymes over his 50-year recording career he’s worthy of his own list. From "Silly Boy Blue" on his eponymous 1967 debut album through to 2000’s "Slip Away" (where he added a touch of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"), Bowie was never far away from a children’s rhyme – even "Ring A Ring O’ Roses" contains the line “ashes, ashes” in some early versions. For his pantaloon-prancing role as Jareth the Goblin King in 1986 film Labyrinth, Bowie recorded the track "Magic Dance". A cheeky, light-hearted number which won the artist formerly known as The Thin White Duke a new legion of ankle-biters as fans, it used the nursery rhyme "What Are Little Boys Made Of?" as the basis for its chorus.

3. The Monkees | "Saturday’s Child"

David Bowie might have referenced the rhyme "Monday’s Child" on his 1999 track "Thursday’s Child", but the other Davy Jones beat him to it - The Monkees' frontman, that is. Written by David Gates (later of Bread) and taking influence from the 19th-century poem "Monday’s Child", the 1966 recording featured drummer Micky Dolenz on vocals.

4. The Clash | "Clash City Rockers"

If the punk activists’ 1977 debut album’s track "London’s Burning"’s nursery rhyme reference wasn’t overt enough for you, The Clash were even more direct on the 1978 non-album single "Clash City Rockers". Later included on some editions of their self-titled debut album, "Clash City Rockers" taunted other successful artists while lifting lines from "Oranges And Lemons": “Come on and show me say the bells of Old Bowie, When I am fitter say the bells of Gary Glitter.” It might be argued XTC had a better use for the 18th Century rhyme when they named their 1989 album after it.

5. Tori Amos | "Baker Baker"

Taken from Tori Amos' 1994 album Under The Pink, the subdued sounds of "Baker Baker" are at odds with the crashing piano chords of the album’s hit single "Cornflake Girl". With a wave of strings and bittersweet vocals, the break-up song based on a line from the 17th-century rhyme "Pat-A-Cake Pat-A-Cake Baker’s Man" still sounds achingly beautiful.

6. Joni Mitchell | "This Flight Tonight"

Madonna’s 1983 single "Lucky Star" might have been the bigger hit to reference "Star Light, Star Bright", but Joni Mitchell beat her to it on her 1971 album Blue. Joni’s track "This Flight Tonight" also contains the 19th-century nursery rhyme’s title in its lyrics. Scottish rock band Nazareth were big fans of Mitchell’s song, scoring a hit with their beefed-up version in 1973. Nazareth bassist Pete Agnew even recounted Mitchell paying the band a compliment after the song reached 11 in the UK singles chart: “She was playing a gig in London and told the audience, ‘I’d like to open with a Nazareth song’!”

7. Lindsey Buckingham | “Holiday Road”

He’s the guitar maestro who guided Fleetwood Mac through successes including 1977’s Rumours and 1987’s Tango In The Night, but on the solo front, Lindsey Buckingham’s arguably best known for a throwaway song he dashed off for a surprise film hit. Drawing on the nursery rhyme "Jack Be Nimble", "Holiday Road" featured Buckingham’s bandmates Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks. It wasn’t a bit hit on release in 1983, but as the theme tune to the National Lampoon’s Vacation movie, it became a perennial favourite. The song has since appeared in a number of the Chevy Chase film’s sequels and is Buckingham’s most played solo song on Spotify.

8. The Beatles | "Lady Madonna"

Paul McCartney would later lean on old children’s poems on the singles "Mary Had A Little Lamb" (a Wings hit in 1972) and "Jenny Wren" (2005), but in his Beatles days, he was a little more subtle with his nursery rhyme thefts. On 1968’s non-album single "Lady Madonna", Macca lifts from not one but two old rhymes. As well as name-checking "Monday’s Child," the clever “see how they run” response to the title character mending her stockings is, of course, drawn from "Hickory Dickory Dock". No mice were harmed in the making of this song.

9. Toto | "Georgy Porgy"

Appearing alongside the hit "Hold The Line" on Toto’s self-titled 1978, "Georgy Porgy" earned strong airplay on Australia’s rock stations before being eclipsed by Toto’s follow-up hits "Rosanna" and "Africa". Lyrically, the yacht rock song was heavily influenced by the 19th-century nursery rhyme about a guy on the wrong side of the #metoo movement.

10. Bobby Darin | "Splish Splash"

Few novelty hits of the late ‘50s hold up as well as Bobby Darin’s track "Splish Splash", which includes a line from the late 18th-century rhyme "Rub-A-Dub-Dub". An abridgement of the nursery rhyme’s title appears to have been thrown into the song simply to rhyme with ‘tub’, but it worked: it was Darin’s first hit and went to number three in the US chart. Darin’s song didn’t divulge if he was sharing his tub with a butcher, baker and candlestick maker.

11. Korn | "Shoots And Ladders"

Cramming in more nursery rhymes than any other hit song in this list, Korn’s 1994 track "Shoots And Ladders" is almost exclusively made up of recycled children’s songs – half a dozen, in fact. The nu-metal group’s third single name-checked rhymes including "London Bridge Is Falling Down", "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and "Mary Had A Little Lamb". "It was written because all these little kids sing these nursery rhymes and they don't know what they originally meant,” frontman Jonathan Davis said. “Everyone is so happy when singing 'Ring Around the Rosie' but it is about the Black Plague. All of them have these evil stories behind them." Sorry Jonathan, but the stories about this song dating from the bubonic plague have long been ruled out as baseless.

13. Andrew Duffield & Tamsin West | "Round The Twist Theme"

Okay, so it might not have been a hit (or even officially released), but it would be an oversight to not mention the Round The Twist theme from the ‘90s ABC TV show. Written by Models member Andrew Duffield and sung by Round The Twist actress Tamsin West, the song is a throwback favourite for many Aussie kids born in the ‘80s. Referencing multiple nursery rhymes including "Humpty Dumpty", "Rain Rain Go Away" and "The Old Lady That Swallowed The Fly", it’s arguably better known to under-40s than "Barbados", "Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight" or "I Hear Motion." Sacrilicious!

13. Carly Simon | "Itsy Bitsy Spider"

You could almost argue Carly Simon owes her entire career to nursery rhymes. Seven years before she became a chart-topping pin-up with 1971’s "You’re So Vain", she’d released an adaptation of 19th-century lullaby "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" with her older sister Lucy. In the ‘80s she returned to the top 30 in Australia with the single "Coming Around Again" from the Heartburn soundtrack. While the original version of "Coming Around Again" doesn’t feature any nursery rhyme references, a curious mash-up of "Coming Around Again" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider" featured on the B-side, as well as closing Simon’s 1987’s Coming Around Again album. Ben and Sally Taylor, Simon’s two children with ex-husband James Taylor, appear on backing vocals on the traditional rhyme (known in Australia as "Incy Wincy Spider"). Simon cheekily took the lyric credit for the song, despite its origins being more than a century old.

14. Carly Simon and James Taylor | "Mockingbird"

Before Carly Simon’s marriage to sweetly voiced troubadour James Taylor imploded in the early ‘80s in a tumultuous cycle of heroin and adultery, the pair had recorded a hit version of an adaptation of "Hush Little Baby". Adapted by soul singing siblings Inez and Charlie Foxx in 1963, the song was also recorded by Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Australia’s Johnny O’Keefe before Simon and Taylor saw their version – featuring Dr John on keys and The Band’s Robbie Robertson on guitar – race up the charts in 1974. In the second Chevy Chase reference in this list, the song was also sung by his character Clark W Griswold in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

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