Appalachia Rhymes

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa baa black sheep

Baa Baa Black Sheep Have You Any Wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir three bags full.
One for the master, one for the dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.


I don’t remember where I first learned the rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep – maybe at school? The rhyme didn’t take on much significance to me because the only sheep I had ever seen were on tv or in books.

Turns out the poem is talking about taxes and the unfairness of them. The “little boy down the lane” symbolizes farmers or everyday citizens who were subject to the Monarchy of England.

The book Heavy Words Lightly Thrown The Reason Behind The Rhyme written by Christ Roberts, gives insight into the real meaning of the rhyme.

“The wealth of England was largely a result of the trade in wool, hence the “woolsack” on which the Lord Chancellor still sits today in the House of Lords. The woolsack was introduced by King Edward III in the fourteenth century and though originally filled with English wool, it is currently packed with wool from each of the countries of the Commonwealth, in order to express unity among member states…. During feudal times, taxes did not go to the Chancellor or even the European Union. In the Middle Ages, farmers were required to give one-third of their income (which could be in the form of goods such as wool) to their “master”-the local lord-who would in turn pass one-third of it to the King and another third to the “dame” (representing the Church). The final third they kept for themselves or sold, and this was the part that went to the “little boy.”

Another nursery rhyme that has serious grown up meaning behind it. Sort of disappointing to learn so many of the old rhymes were born out of frustration and bondage.

I suppose in those days folks used the rhymes as their own sort of free speech-they were able to say what they wanted yet claim it was nothing more than a diddy to entertain their children.


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  • Reply
    June 28, 2017 at 5:29 am

    ha ha ha!!am surpised i have not gotten the lyrics to the nursery rhythms right.but I can confortably blame it on my nursery school teacher who never got it right from the word go.
    I cant stop laughing

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    September 7, 2014 at 10:34 am

    b. Ruth, the frogs have turned that sheep dip into a lap swimming pool, and from the number of clusters of frog eggs in there, it is definitely co-educational.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 6, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    and Don…Thanks again for the links to Dutch Roth’s images. I have seen some of his photographs but not viewed the collection.
    Your photo of Gregory Bald is just beautiful.
    It is a funny “co-winky-dinky”, (coincidence) that I was just thinking about rye last night. We purchased nearly two hundred 78 records yesterday. “Oh no, you say! Oh yes, I state! There was some Bill Monroe, Tex Ritter (some say wrote Rye Whiskey) but I don’t think so, Gene Autry, etc.
    Anyhow, there was also a few Homer and Jethro 78’s. I was looking up a Homer and Jethro record and ran into their rendition of “Rye Whiskey”…funny, funny as you might expect. Wait a minute Don and the writer of this blog probably do not know who these boys were, you are probably too young! They met in Knoxville at the radio station WNOX “Merry-go-round” show, when they were 16 years old, accomplished musicians, one playing the mandolin (Jethro) the other Homer played the guitar! They then went to war, came back and made comedy rendition’s of popular songs of the times. I remember listing to them when I was a kid. Dad loved them, Mom hated them…LOL
    I then pondered if rye was grown very much in the mountains of Western NC and East TN for the blend of Rye and Corn moonshine?
    I am sure it must’ve been. Rye withstood cold temperatures and poor rocky soil…and rye was a Scot/Irish as well as German brew!
    I regress….Sorry about that, I wonder if Don smelled any Rye while he was trying to take a nap on that beautiful plot of rye! Was he shore that was a bear or maybe a nosy moonshiner just a checking on his business?
    How did I get from Baa Baa Black Sheep to Rye Whiskey and Homer and Jethro, I don’t know? One thang leads to another I suppose.
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…I listened to 78’s of Homer and Jethro, Bill Monroe and Tex Ritter til I got sleepy..
    Homer and Jethro although silly, made their mil and were fantastic musicans…

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    September 6, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    And to think we all thought rap music was a relatively new art form!

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 6, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Thanks and Don for posting the picture again. I just love that picture. I suppose many animals cherish that “sheep dip” for holding water on a hot mountain day! It would be fun to put up one of those night camouflaged cameras to just take a nighttime look-see, as to what visits the sheep-dip, when all is quiet and heavens sky darkens.
    Don or Tipper, why don’t one of you or the Deer Hunter just run right up there and do that! You could just then make a day trip hike back up there on shanks mare to retrieve it later!
    Reckon anything ever falls in that “shhheeepp dippp” that ain’t supposssed too?…Ooooh and booo, it is getting close to Halloween!
    Thanks again Tipper and Don!

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    September 6, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    b. Ruth also mentioned the grazing of sheep on balds in the summer (by the way, cattle were also taken there for summer grazing).
    The Univ. of TN has a collection of photographs by Dutch Roth which includes one of sheep grazing on Gregory Bald. The collection is available online at the link below.;g=gsmc;page=index
    If you go to that page and search for “Sheep” a pair of images of sheep grazing on balds will come up. One is at the Russell Field, which is 2.8 miles east north east of Mollie’s Butt (seriously).
    The other is on Gregory Bald. That one is looking to the southeast. In the first ridgeline in the background, you can see another bald spot. That is the Rye Patch. Although it’s covered in trees now, it’s still got a considerable understory of grass. I tried to lay down and take a nap there this summer, but a sorry bear kept breaking branches in a nearby sarvis tree trying to get at the ripe fruit.
    Beyond the Rye Patch is the Little Tennessee River valley, lying in its typical morning fog bank. The pair of peaks which make a vee are Shuckstack (on right) and Little Shuckstack.
    Although part of Gregory Bald is kept cut back by the Park Service, there is only one small spot through the encroaching trees where you can see the very top of Shuckstack now. It’s easy to identify because it has a fire tower on top which offers some fantastic views.
    Below is a link to a photo from Gregory Bald a couple of years ago. You’ll be able to make out the Shuckstack fire tower just above the trees in the center of the photo. The mountains in the background are parts of the Cheoah, Nantahala, and Cowee ranges. I upped the contrast on the photo to more clearly show the ranges in the back, mindful of Louis L’Amour’s book title, “To the Far Blue Mountains”

  • Reply
    September 6, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Very interesting! Here I am a very senior citizen, and I am learning all the secret meanings of nursery rhymes that I had learned a as very young child. It was a way to teach rhyming. The real underlining meaning is taught to me in my old age. Oh, my! Thanks for the learning today!

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    September 6, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Tipper alerted me to the b. Ruth’s recollection of the sheep dip.
    I learned of the sheep dip from Lawrence Hyatt, who spent some of his childhood years on Noland Creek where his father, Cole, worked for Phillip Rust. While I’d have almost certainly found it on my own (since I went by it en route to some old home places on my way to Andreas Branch), there’s no way that I’d have figured out what it was if Lawrence hadn’t told me.
    Here’s a photo of the sheep dip. Note my foot in the lower right for size perspective. I’d guess it to be about 15-20 ft long. As I recall, it was around 3 feet deep in the center.
    Even though it’s within 100 yards of the Noland Creek trail, you can’t see it from the trail. You have to climb down to the creek, ford it and get through the rhododendron that obscures it on the other side.
    A photo is here:

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 6, 2014 at 11:47 am

    Well, “Sheep Dip”, I forgot to thank Tipper for her wonderful post!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…There were no sheep raised by our Appalachian families either, just hogs, cattle, and chickens. However, I think I remember Don posting a picture of a Sheep Dip basin found on one of his treks across the mountains, and I have read of many farmers of Appalachia having sheep and moving them unto these balds and hills to graze anew. Makes sense to me that the Irish, Scots, and English would want a very familiar wooly animal in their presence when settling in their new mountain homes. Thus, Lindsey-Woolsey woven fabric! I love the feel of it!

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 6, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Ah-ha…How can I fill my pockets with anything other than that nasty fuzzy wooly ball in the corner of the bottom of the pocket! Why post an export tax on all the wooly balls of British farmers and push a portion of those coins in my pocket.
    Have you heard that, and I quote from my book of “The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes” that in 2006 the words to the rhyme were changed by some English nurseries, to Baa Baa, Rainbow Sheep to meet requirements of policies for Equal Opportunities.
    There was an outrage, that the Big Brother was forcing compliance and rewriting children’s ditties to make them more socially acceptable and politically correct.
    Another thang…I have heard all my life that a particular so and so was the “Black Sheep of the family.”
    Which meant, from what I learned growing up, that the “black sheep” would get into and would continually be in meanness and serious trouble, usually hunted by the law!
    Law, law such are the ways of life. I just love me some little lambs, no matter what color they are…they are all so sweet and lambs of God!

  • Reply
    eva nell wike, PhD
    September 6, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Well Tipper, this post was new and enlightment to me and my sweetheart. Jim says that means of ‘sharing’ wool was a good excuse for a civil war! Of course the little lad down the lane would have lost the war!
    Hope your day is sunny.
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Jackie jentzsch
    September 6, 2014 at 7:59 am

    My senior paper was on mother goose. What an eye opener. People were so repressed that their only way of speaking out was thru these rhymes. I learned a lot doing the research. I got an A+ Wish I had the internet way back then. lol

  • Reply
    jane bolden
    September 6, 2014 at 7:43 am

    I had no idea. I have recited it many times to my grandchildren.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 6, 2014 at 7:38 am

    Some things don’t change, like taxes on top of taxes. At least now we can gripe about it openly!

  • Reply
    September 6, 2014 at 7:35 am

    That’s a handsome sheep in the photo. I have only one white sheep left in my flock here in Maryland- all the others are black. Since my daughter grew up and moved on from her 4-H projects, the sheep are now mine. We used to sell the prize-winning fleeces after showing them in the fairs. Now, after some research and experimentation, I have found that the shorn wool serves as wonderdful mulch, letting the rain through to plant roots but blocking weed growth – and the dark wool blends in visually with the garden. I use it to cozy up rhe dog beds. And, wool makes a very effective remedy for ruts to prevent them during gullywasher rains. This reminds me of ‘the golden fleece- which became so because gold flecks were caught in the wool fibers when the fleece was used to pan for gold in a river. The Golden Fleece award is also Spain’s highest honor for a citizen.

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