I am fascinated by lullabies that seem to be anything but soothing. I remember, as small child, I learned "Rock a-bye, Baby" from my father. Singing "when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall" certainly did not sound like a way to send a child off to sleep, even when I was a kid. First, I wondered about how the cradle ended up in the tree (I always visualized the big tree next door - its branches reached close to my bedroom window and I knew it was not a safe place for anyone, let alone a helpless baby). Then, I thought of the wind blowing while the child was up there stranded; it sent chills up my spine (I never did like heights and still don't). I wonder how many nightmares were fueled by lullabies!
Twice I have been approached by genealogists who, when they learned that I am a folklorist, asked me to identify a song they remembered from their own childhoods (in one case, it had been sung by an elderly family member and the person brought me a tape to listen to). I located the lullaby with no problem - it's called Two Little Babes in the Woods - and the lyrics are on line. It's about two small children who wander into the woods, get scared, and die. Now, I think everyone will agree that this is hardly a pleasant story to tell a child who is drifting off to sleep! But let's look a little deeper: today it is rare for people, especially small children, to wander into the woods. I mean, I won't let my grandkids leave the fenced-in back yard when they are here and most parents won't let one of their small children out of the front door without an older child or adult along for safety! Today our fears center around child abduction, but our ancestors feared their babes would wander into the nearby forest and be devoured by wild animals. I remember visiting my grandmother at the family cottage in Wisconsin where the woods surrounded many of the homes. There weren't many vicious animals and we played in the woods with few fears (though the skunks, porcupines, and raccoons did pose certain threats, especially if they were mamas with babies to protect). But I can see how easy it would have been to get lost, even in the woods near Grandma's place. How much easier would it have been 100 years or more before, when there was even less construction? In fact, Grandma's mother remembered walking through the forest to visit Solomon Juneau, returning home at night, by lantern . . . and this was in Milwaukee! So I suspect the "Two Little Babes" lullaby had another purpose beyond getting a child to fall asleep: it was a warning - "Don't go into the woods! See what can happen?" How many kids obeyed out of fear? Well, whatever it takes!
Last week, in my "Songs of Early Childhood" CD promotion blog, I discussed the song "All the Pretty Little Horses" (track 4) - another lullaby used to communicate a sensitive message to a child who probably was oblivious to the actual meaning of the song (though the phrase, "Way down yonder, in the meadow, there's a poor little lamby/Birds and butterflies, peckin' at its eyes, poor little thing keeps crying 'Mammy'" conjures up some pretty horrific images). I also discussed "Go Tell Aunt Rhody," another song often used as a lullaby, that focuses on a goose that died. It does give one pause, doesn't it? But how does that nighttime prayer go? "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." What a pleasant thought to be the last of a child's day!
Do you know some other lullabies or nighttime stories that send a child off to bed with thoughts of danger and death? Do you remember how you felt when/if your parents sent you to bed with such songs? Was it as traumatic as some folks today imagine? Well, there was still "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod" to remind us that not everything dealt with fear and death for children heading off to sleep!