Wednesday April 17th, 2024 7:30AM

Not much "lull" in lullabies

By Bill Maine Executive Vice President & General Manager

Music, like laughter and rude hand gestures, is a universal language.  No matter where you are on the globe, you’ll find music. Not all of it sounds the same and not all of it may be to your liking but it’s something that we humans do regardless of longitude or latitude.

Some people are better at this language than others. It is certainly a combination of nature and nurture. I am not smart enough to tell you which has the most influence, but I do know that even those who can’t speak it very well, certainly understand it. Regardless of how much music is in our DNA, we are nurtured in it from the day we begin drawing breath on our own.

Even parents who can’t carry a tune in the preverbal bucket sing lullabies to their babies. I am certain that this ritual began more out of desperation to quiet a crying baby than the desire to instill a sense of musical appreciation in their offspring. I do wonder what those early lullabies were like. I’m guessing the earliest humans mostly hummed them. It is a bit impossible to come up with lyrics when you don’t even have a spoken language. 

It would be interesting to see what would happen if someone was raised by a parent that never sang a lullaby. If they never had a cultural reference toward singing them, would they instinctively sing to their children anyway? I’ll leave that to the anthropologists.

I am willing to wager that those of us who have found ourselves faced with the challenge of comforting a crying baby picked “Rock-a-by Baby” as our lullaby of choice. I certainly did because it is the only one that I can remember. I sometimes wonder if it is the only one every written and humankind decided that one was all we needed. I guess if it isn’t broken you don’t need to fix it.  I also bet that most have never really considered the lyrics. Thank goodness that babies don’t understand most of what adults say or that whole thing about “the baby will fall” would likely not instill the desire to sleep let alone stay in the crib.

I did some research on this little ditty from my diaper days and found a couple of interesting things. According to one source, the song was sung by women working in the fields in the 1700s. They would carry their babies in a sling. Once at the field they would hang the sling between two tree branches. The lyrics make a little more sense with that information. But I still wonder why you’d sing the equivalent of “when the branches snap, you’re going to fall.” And notice it’s not “if” but “when”.  Sleep well, little one.

The other piece of information associated with this “don’t fall asleep ‘cause you might die song” is political. It is said that it was a song against King James II. More accurately against his young son. Apparently, it was a song wishing that his son would die so that he would have no heir allowing James II could be replaced by a Protestant king. And you think today’s politics are messy!

As much as it could be, “Rock-a-by Baby” is not the only lullaby. Another popular baby charmer is “Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say a Word.” Some interesting messages in this one too. Papa apparently has a lot of money that he is willing to spend on stuff that no baby would ever want. A mockingbird, a looking glass, a billy goat, and a dog named Rover are all on the shopping list. Each is a fallback gift if the one prior to it on the list doesn’t work out. Obviously, Papa has shopped on Craig’s list and gotten ripped off in the past. It’s quite the study in consumerism and proof that you should never shop while drinking.

The political implications of “Rock-a-Bye” got me thinking of alternate lyrics to “Hush Little Baby.” I imagine it would be sung in families with political aspirations for their children and would go something like this:

Hush little baby don’t you cry,
Daddy is going to give you an alibi.

If that alibi won’t fly,
You can tell an outright lie.

If that outright lie should fail,
Then you’re going to land in jail.

Okay, so it’s a work in progress. But I bet it catches on inside the Beltway.

Later we were all exposed to songs that taught important lessons. Top of that list is the “ABC Song.” Wouldn’t you like to have the copyright on that one? The line “now I know my ABCs” is technically accurate but quite misleading. You learned the letters but still had no idea what sounds they represented or how to use them to spell words.  In my case, just as I began to feel I had a grasp on how to use those letters, they started showing up in math problems. How the heck do you pronounce a2+b2=c2? When they told us we were going to do word problems, I thought they would at least use real words.

“The Wheels on the Bus” was especially helpful to me. I never rode a bus until third grade. It was nice not to have to learn that the wheels go round and round the hard way. It would have been even better to know about the spitball and squirt gun fights beforehand so that I could have been better equipped for battle. Out of fairness, the song does tell you that the horn on the bus goes “beep, beep, beep.” Too bad they couldn’t work in the fact that if you don’t get out of the way when you hear it go “beep, beep, beep” you’ll go “splat, splat, splat!” I guess you can only put just so much information in a song.

The bus expanded our musical horizons even more. If I hadn’t ridden the bus to school or on band trips I wouldn’t have learned to count backwards. “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” was sung on many a bus trip. It held a fascination because we sang about something we had never had or were allowed to partake of at that age. We thought we were getting away with something which is what every school kid wants to do.

I think bottle number 91 was as far as we got before stopping. I’m not sure if it was because we lost interest or if we just couldn’t count backwards very well. Either way it hasn’t really hurt me since the only time that I’ve been required to count backwards involved anesthesia and I only need to make it to 97.

Out like a light without a lullaby.


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