Cry Baby Cry…darkness in the nursery

“…I think I got them from an advert – ‘Cry baby cry, make your mother buy’. I’ve been playing it over on the piano. I’ve let it go now. It’ll come back if I really want it. I do get up from the piano as if I have been in a trance.” – John Lennon speaking to Hunter Davies

John said that a commercial gave him the idea for “Cry Baby Cry.”

John, White Album period (image courtesy Eyeglasses Warehouse)

That may be true. We know, however, from both In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works that Lennon was attracted to both fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm and nonsense verse like that of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. What “Cry Baby Cry”  gives us is John playing with the conventions of the nursery rhyme.

All of these forms – the fairy tale, nonsense verse, and nursery rhyme – come from the need ordinary people have to comment on political, social, and psychological issues peculiar to the cultural contexts in which they were written. Fairy tales were ways for children to learn about life’s dark and sad events such as kidnapping, murder, and deadly accidents; nonsense verse allowed writers to explore complex – and often taboo –  subjects such as sexual deviance and mental illness; nursery rhymes most often provided common people with clever ways to comment on political issues (such as  the tempestuous rule of Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Mary in”Mary Quite Contrary).

In one of his later interviews John referred to “Cry Baby Cry” as “rubbish,” but it’s rubbish of a particularly pointed nature.

Here are the lyrics:

   Cry Baby Cry

Cry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She’s old enough to know betterThe king of Marigold was in the kitchen
Cooking breakfast for the queen
The queen was in the parlour
Playing piano for the children of the kingCry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She’s old enough to know better
So cry baby cry

The king was in the garden
Picking flowers for a friend who came to play
The queen was in the playroom
Painting pictures for the childrens holiday

Cry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She’s old enough to know better
So cry baby cry

The duchess of Kircaldy always smiling
And arriving late for tea
The duke was having problems
With a message at the local bird and bee

Cry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She’s old enough to know better
So cry baby cry

At twelve o’clock a meeting round the table
For a seance in the dark
With voices out of nowhere
Put on specially by the children for a lark

Cry baby cry
Make your mother sigh
She’s old enough to know better
So cry baby cry cry cry cry baby
Make your mother sigh
She’s old enough to know better
Cry baby cry

Cry cry cry
Make your mother sigh
She’s old enough to know better
So cry baby cry

It’s commonly known that John based at least part of the song’s lyrics on the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” But there are, I think, private messages throughout “Cry Baby Cry.” The stanza with the king cooking breakfast while the queen plays piano likely refers to John’s relationship with Yoko Ono, a relationship which redefined the way he related to women. The next two stanzas, which depict the king picking flowers for “A friend who came to play” and the Duke of Kircaldy “having problems with the local bird and bee” may refer to the marital/relationship problems of his fellow Beatles Ringo and Paul, both of whom were embroiled in failing relationships. And the last stanza with the “children” putting on “voices…specially…for a lark” may well refer to the Beatles habit of working in the studio from about seven PM until the wee hours of the morning.

Completed as it was during the tempestuous White Album sessions, “Cry Baby Cry” is exactly what we would expect a nursery rhyme to be: a charming sing-a-long with a dark message at its core.

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About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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