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1001 Stories Collection

Baa Baa Black Sheep

1001 Baa Baa Black Smith
Added on 06th October 2020

Oral tradition English nursery rhyme


The old English nursery rhyme about how many bags of wool the sheep has.


Baa Baa, Black Sheep is an English nursery rhyme from the mid-18th century. The song asks how many bags of wool the sheep has and learns that there is one for the master and one for the dame but none for the little boy who lives down the lane.

The tune is similar to Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star and The Alphabet Song, and all are a variant on the 1761 French song Ah, vous dirai-je, maman!

Why we chose it

Baa Baa Black Sheep was one of the rhymes featured in our Time for Bed room, chosen by artist Helen Cooper to appear on the mural in the Nursery Rhyme room. The mural can now be seen in Small Worlds.

Where it came from

The rhyme was first published in 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, and, like many other nursery rhymes, is attributed to the fictional Mother Goose. It is generally believed to be about the Great Custom - a heavy taxation on wool introduced in the late 13th century by Edward I. One for the master and one for the dame refers to tax paid to the king and to the church. The last line was originally ‘none for the little boy, who cries down the lane’, referring to the poor shepherd boy who received nothing for all his hard work.

Where it went next

The song has appeared in a number of nursery rhyme anthologies over the years.

Although there is no historical evidence for it, recently there has been the belief that ‘black’ and ‘master’ are actually references to slavery rather than the wool tax. Subsequently, many schools and nurseries now sing about pink, rainbow, and bouncing or happy sheep alongside the black sheep, and often omit the ‘master’ reference entirely.

Associated stories

As well as being included in every collection of traditional rhymes and stories, a number of artists, authors, and illustrators have created their own versions. Jane Cabrera’s 2015 version is about a little girl knitting things for other familiar nursery rhyme characters from the wool given to her by a sheep, whose consequently depleting wool leaves him a little chilly. Nick Sharratt and Katrina Chapman adapted it into Car, Car, Truck, Jeep in 2018.

Added on 06th October 2020

Oral tradition English nursery rhyme