You know, it seems to me that we haven't taken this song seriously enough. If we look into it, we might find something surprising. Here's the Traditional Ballad Index entry:
Old MacDonald Had a FarmDESCRIPTION: (Old MacDonald's) farm features a wide variety of livestock, described cumulatively, e.g. with the pig making an oink here and an oink there, the cow a moo-moo here and there, etc. until the entire farm is sounding off
EARLIEST DATE: 1917 (Tommy's Tunes)
KEYWORDS: animal farming cumulative nonballad
FOUND IN: US(MW,SE,So)
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Randolph 457, "The Merry Green Fields of the Lowland" (1 text); 458, "Old Missouri" (1 text)
BrownIII 125, "McDonald's Farm" (5 text)
Kennedy 310, "When I Was a Boy" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gilbert, p. 83, "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" (1 text)
Silber-FSWB, p. 389, "Old MacDonald Had A Farm" (1 text)
LPound-ABS, 120, pp. 238-240, "Sweet Fields of Violo" (1 text)
Fuld-WFM, pp. 410-412, "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"
Warren Caplinger's Cumberland Mountain Entertainers, "McDonald's Farm" (Brunswick 294, 1929; Brunswick [Canada] 224, c. 1933)
Sam Patterson Trio, "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" (Edison 51644, 1925)
Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers, "Old McDonald Had A Farm" (Columbia 15204-D, 1927)
Golly, Ain't That Queer (Pankake-PHCFSB, pp. 171-172)
The Farmyard Song
Notes: Are the pieces listed here really one song? It's not immediately obvious. The British and American versions are often very distinct, but there are intermediate versions, e.g. Randolph's.
Neither of Randolph's texts conforms to the common version of "Old MacDonald," and "The Merry Green Fields of the Lowland," in particular, looks older (It probably derives from the George Christy version "In the Merry Green Fields of Oland," from 1865; compare Sharp's "Merry Green Fields of Ireland" and Pound's "Sweet Fields of Violo"). But the cumulative pattern is the same (indeed, something very like it is quoted in Pills to Purge Melancholy in 1707), so I assume the family is a unity.
Gilbert claims the piece (in which "My Grandfather," rather than "Old MacDonald, is the farmer) comes from a busker of the 1870s called "the Country Fiddler," but gives no details to verify this.
I use the "Old MacDonald" title because it is the best-known, though Fuld reports that this version did not appear until 1917 (and even then, it was "Old MacDougal"). - RBW
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Be sure to see this thread (click) for early versions of the song.