Sing a Song of Six Pence is an English nursery rhyme which originated sometime during the 1700s. Its author is not known and its meaning and origins are not entirely clear. There are several variants as well.
The title may derive from a line in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, in which Sir Toby Belch tells a clown: "Come on; there is sixpence for you: let's have a song." A pence is a British coin equivalent to a penny, and so the payment for the song would be relatively little even adjusting for inflation over the past few centuries. According to another theory, the title of the song comes from a 1614 play written Beaumont and Fletcher which contains the line "Whoa, here's a stir now! Sing a song o' sixpence!" However since the Tempest was written before Beaumont's play, it may have borrowed from Shakespeare's version.
In the story, a group of 24 live magpies are baked into a pie and served to the king. The magpies fly out and eventually attack the maid, nipping off her nose. Though it is later reattached.
The strange image of 24 blackbirds flying out of a pie may have its roots in a custom of the time to actually put live animals within inedible dishes as an amusement or culinary flair. There are historical accounts that the guests at the wedding of Marie de' Medici and Henry IV of France in 1600 were surprised by song birds flying out of their desserts. You have to feel sorry for the poor birds.
The meaning of the song, if any, has been the subject of much debate. The fact that there are 24 black birds has been interpreted by some as a reference to the hours in the day. The king and queen have been identified with the Sun and the Moon respectively. Others have found a deeper historical or allegorical meaning in this children's rhyme: from references to Henry the VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries to the maid's soul being stolen.
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