Some people claim that this song was created by a pilgrim boy who sailed to America on the Mayflower. There he saw cradles made out of birch bark hanging from the trees. (That's how some Native Americans made them in those days.) The boy then wrote down this song.
On the tree top,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall and
Down will come baby,
Cradle and all.
Here's the version from A Book for Bairns and Big Folk, Children's Rhymes, Games, Songs, and Stories (1904), by Robert Ford:
Hush-a-by Baby on the Tree Top
Hush-a-by baby on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
And down will come cradle and baby and all.
Ford wrote, "This is a rhyme which 'every child has joyed to hear.' Its origin, as told in the records of the Boston (U.S.) Historical Society, is not more curious than beautiful and significant. 'Shortly after our forefathers landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts (I am quoting), a party were out in the fields where the Indian women were picking strawberries. Several of the women, or squaws as they were called, had papooses - that is babies - and, having no cradle, they had them tied up in Indian fashion and hung from the limbs of the surrounding trees. Sure enough, when the wind blew these cradles would rock! A young man of the party observing this, pulled off a piece of bark and wrote off the above words, which is believed to be the first poetry written in America.'"
Another Theory about the Origins of this Song:
Betty Kenny (Kate Kenyon) and her charcoal burner husband Luke lived in the Shining Cliff Woods in the late 1700's in a huge yew tree that is said to be 2000 years old. Their house was formed within the tree, probably with a turf roof. They raised 8 children, and are said to have used a hollowed-out bough of the tree as a cradle. Local legend suggests that this is the origin of the nursery rhyme "Rock-a-bye-Baby".
Another version of this lullaby is Hush-a-bye Baby on the Tree Top (click link for song).
See also Hush-a-bye Baby (By Denslow) for a less scary version.
Thanks to Corrina Durdunas for singing Rock-a-bye Baby for us.
The version below ends with, "And Mommy will catch you cradle and all".
Many thanks to Frances Turnbull, Independent music educator at Musicaliti, for singing this song for us!
Thanks and Acknowledgements
The first illustration is by Jessie Willcox Smith (1912) and the second is from The Real Mother Goose (1916), illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright.