“I Gave My Love a Cherry” or “The Riddle Song”

“I Gave My Love a Cherry” or “The Riddle Song” is mostly known as a lullaby and an American folk song from the Appalachian Mountains. There are many “riddle songs”, but this one had the honor of being “the” riddle song. The Ballad Index has an entry for it.  Wikipedia gives this version of the lyrics:

“I gave my love a cherry without a stone
I gave my love a chicken without a bone
I gave my love a ring that had no end
I gave my love a baby with no crying

How can there be a cherry that has no stone?
How can there be a chicken that has no bone?
How can there be a ring that has no end?
How can there be a baby with no crying?

A cherry when it’s blooming, it has no stone
A chicken when it’s pipping, it has no bone
A ring while it’s rolling, it has no end
A baby when it’s sleeping, has no crying”

A lot of people seem to think that this song obliquely relates sexual behaviour. It feels like unnecessary perversion of a lullaby. I have since learned through some research that it primarily begins by an impression of the first line, so let us discuss that first line:

This song’s earliest predecessor of a riddle song dates back to the 1400s. In “I Have a Young Suster”, there is a portion claiming “She sente me the chery/Wythouten ony ston“. Modernized, it is “She sent me the cherry/Without any stone”. This is similar enough to “I gave my love a cherry without a stone”. The answer to the cherry riddle in “I Have a Yong Suster” is “Whan the chery was a flour/Than hadde it non stone”. In other words, “When the cherry was a flower/Then it had no stone”. In our newer version, we also have a line which seems strangely similar: “A cherry when it’s blooming, it has no stone”.

I think it likely that the two are related and that one possibly evolved from the other. I find it likely that “I Have a Young Suster” influenced “I Gave My Love a Cherry” because of the similarities. In both, the first two riddles have to do with a cherry without a stone and a bird without bone.

Note that the slang meaning for “cherry” only developed in the 20th century, so the 1430 version may have meant precisely what it says: a flower. If “I Gave My Love a Cherry” is directly related to “I Have a Young Suster”, it is clear that the newer version really does mean a flower. If they are not directly related, deciding what was originally intended could involve dating the earliest year that “I Gave My Love a Cherry” was sung and seeing if that was before or after “cherry” gained its slang meaning. I tried to do that but unfortunately could not find a source for my claim about when the slang meaning for “cherry” developed. I am very sure that it was only in the 20th century, though. I did, however, find a claim from Mama Lisa that the “I Gave My Love a Cherry” song was sung in the mid 18th century.

(It is worth noting that those who believe in what I do not believe have invented some curious variations which they purport to be closer to the original version, if one is interested in that sort of thing.)

What is the song about, then? Let us break down the lyrics. I will take each set of related lines.

“I gave my love a cherry without a stone
. . .
How can there be a cherry that has no stone?
. . .
A cherry when it’s blooming it has no stone”

Cherries grow on cherry trees. I hope that you will all take my word for that even if you are dubious of that claim. Anyway, the cherry grows behind the flower petals. If there is pollination, a stone (the cherry pit) forms within the cherry and it matures. This is not unlike most other fruit.

At any rate, while the flower is still growing, or blooming, it does not get pollinated and the cherry does not form a seed inside of it. So, we have a cherry blossom with no seed inside it.

“I gave my love a chicken without a bone”
. . .
How can there be a chicken that has no bone?
. . .
A chicken when it’s pipping, it has no bone”

Understanding the chicken reference requires knowing what “pipping” means. “Pipping” can be defined as the process of breaking open the eggshell. I cannot state that a chicken has no bones at the time it is breaking open its eggshell, but it would be true to say that at some point in the egg, a chicken has no bones. I would imagine that this period of time is what is referred to.

“I gave my love a ring that had no end
. . .
How can there be a ring that has no end?
. . .
A ring while it’s rolling, it has no end”

Nana Mouskouri sings a version of this where the singer gives a “love story” which cannot end while it is still being told. I have also found in my research that there is a version where it is about giving a story which has no end while it is being read. (See this Mudcat discussion about “I Gave My Love a Cherry”.)

Let us stick to the traditional lyrics, which I believe is the set I have above… and there is astounding little to say. A ring is traditionally a circle. A circle does not have an end.

“I gave my love a baby with no crying
. . .
How can there be a baby with no crying?
. . .
A baby when it’s sleeping, has no crying”

I feel that the answer to this part of the “Riddle Song” is self-explanatory. A baby does not sleep and cry at the same time (Most of the time!), so a baby which is sleeping has no crying.

What does all of this mean when put together?

Because the last three riddles can be taken very literally, I strongly feel that the first is also meant to be a literal answer rather than a metaphor for something sexual. Having all of the answers be literal is much more parallel. This does not exclude the riddles and answers from having two meanings, I grant!

Given that this is used as a lullaby, I see it perfectly reasonable for “The Riddle Song” to be merely a song full of random riddles which have no relation to each other. When I was a child, I would ask questions as they came to me, skipping from idea to idea and back again as I thought of things rather than pursuing one set of answers or one concept to the end and only turning to a new line of questioning after exhausting the previous one.

However, I admit that I take a bit of liberty and imagine it is, like “I Have a Young Suster”, about love and asking riddles which require some understanding or worthiness. The sequence— flower, chick-in-shell, ring, and baby— seem to be like the flow of love. Flowers are for courtship; chicks-in-shell exist in spring, the season of courtship and when love begins to bloom; rings are given to marry or to promise; and the idealized version of a happy marriage typically includes a baby.

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