Saturday, December 12, 2015

On lullabies

I wouldn't have thought to consider this strategy of sleep inducement because white noise was working so well,* but then an accidental playing of the Brahms Lullaby knocked her right out, so I decided to look into what is obviously an old and well-worn method of making babies sleep.** It's not that I don't sing to the baby, but I just make up horribly unmusical things on the spot, mainly containing the lyric, "Go to sleep so Mama can finish her dissertation." Pre-made lullabies seemed easier than trying to come up with verses that rhyme with "dissertation." The problem is that the only lullabies I know are...questionable. For example:

- "Hush Little Baby": In this song, a parent bribes the child to sleep with a number of bizarre gifts that no infant could possibly desire or use, including a diamond ring and a "cart and bull," and when all these extravagant bribes fail, assures the baby that it is sweeter or cuter than everyone else. The primary lesson is one of unfettered materialism and vanity.
- "Frere Jacques": This song encourages waking up instead of sleeping. Definitely the wrong lesson.
- "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star": The child narrating this song just wants to know what the star is, and instead gets five stanzas of quaint digression that never answer his question! Lyrics could stand to be updated by an astrophysicist.
- "Rock-a-Bye Baby": In this song, the eponymous baby falls from a tree and presumably dies. What kind of message is that?!

Further research turned up a number of more comforting songs for babies, but they're more complex musically and lyrically, so they take work to learn. Also, they're usually Christian. (Babycenter claims "Amazing Grace" is a lullaby - as if someone as musically-defective as me can produce that on demand!) I assume this is why they've failed to attain the popularity of the simple, secular songs above. One poem I was surprised not to see turned into a popular lullaby is Stevenson's "Land of Nod." I found it set to music in - of all places - Natalie Merchant's album of children's songs. (My childhood musical enthusiasms are now making music for my children.) But her tune is not very sing-able. Actually, few of these tunes are, so as an effort to create lullabies out of old children's poems, this album is kind of a failure.

* Nobody else seemed to think that putting babies to sleep by piping the sophisticated sounds of "rain on car," "washing machine," and "hair dryer" into their ears is creepy, so I accepted this practice (plus, it's so effective), but I'm still a little troubled by the sense that white noise represents a way of pushing the baby back into the womb rather than leading it out into civilization, as music does.
** But its antiquity and repute may be such only because of the failure to discover the magic of white noise earlier.


Emily Hale said...

I love Rock-a-Bye-Baby--it gives me hopes that the very wide-ranging feelings I have for my baby (from love to frustration) are in a time-honored tradition.

Miss Self-Important said...

A cursory search suggests that it was not in fact written by a fed-up mother, but has a tortuous and vague history. Wikipedia suggests it's a code song for the Exclusion Crisis. It also suggests that people used to throw their babies around like juggling balls and sing about it!

Emily Hale said...

politics and lullabies!

Withywindle said...


JD Bell said...

Mother used "Blues in the Night", "Sentimental Journey" and "Three Little Fishes" among other favorites. For her music mostly started in 1935 and faded away in 1951 or so. Only Big Band sound would do.