Children’s Lullabies explained and ruined
I like to make up songs for my son. Not only does it feel more personal, but I also feel like I’m getting parental extra credit. While lovingly creating soothing sounds for my baby, I was pretty intent on avoiding most of the old fashioned lullabies that are sung to children. Why? Because they are not appropriate for children. Here, I have detailed a completely historically inaccurate account of what’s wrong with some of our old favorites.
Origin: Pre-pre-America. Drunk dad on the woodsy edge of a depressing settlement town, contemplating fatherhood.
In the treetop/
When the wind blows/
The cradle will rock/
When the bough breaks/
The cradle will fall/
And down will come baby/
Cradle and all.
HOLD ON. Why is there a baby in a tree? Was his screaming really that bad that you felt the need to put him to sleep in such a vindictive manner? And furthermore, wouldn’t you be aware that putting an infant on the top of a tree is a bad enough idea, let alone during a mercurial evening? A bough (this is a prim word for “branch”, for those who may be confused by olden-talk) is obviously going to break when the wind is vexed and the sky is cranky. Obviously.
Some insist that “Rock-A-Bye Baby” was the first poem to be written on American soil, but I call shenanigans because there were far too many wild animals in adolescent America for the baby to have made it to the end of the poem. Had it really been written by a dead-beat settler dad in America, it would have gone something like this:
In the tree—
O, hey there, feller!
Look, little Willy George,
We’ve chanced upon a pet.
It’s all smiles and simply bristling with fur, and—
Willy George?! Nooo!
No, we can definitely hold the English responsible for this one.
“This Old Man”
Origin: A demented old school teacher writes a song for her students, which is really an account of her equally demented husband’s behavior. Also from England.
This old man, he played one/
He played knick-knack on my thumb/
With a knick-knack paddy wack/
Give the dog a bone/
This old man came rolling home.
What in the name of child services is a knick-knack paddy wack, and why is an old man rolling home? Is he drunk? Is he excessively senile, yet agile? Assuming that this paddy wack action is not really as suspect as it sounds, then the thumb is probably a good place to be doing it.
But it doesn’t end there. The song continues on in the same format seen above, with each stanza increasing to the number ten while the old man screws around in increasingly creepier ways.
He moves to the narrator’s shoe for number two (I imagine the narrator to be a seven year old boy reciting a character witness of this weird old dude in a trial). Okay, I’ll allow this one.
But things get uncomfortable at three, when the old man insists on laying the paddy whack on the poor kid’s knee. He then fools with the kid’s door, his hive (?), his sticks (rude), and keeps the party going in heaven (finally! So long, weirdo). But when we get to eight, he’s BACK AT THE KID’S GATE.
Even the afterlife couldn’t deal with this nut and his incessant paddy whacking. By nine, he’s doing it on the boy’s spine. Where is this child’s mother?
This song was most likely written in an effort to teach young children how to count to ten. I get that you might want to trick your kid into learning with a little ditty of some sort, but what say we re-write it without the stranger danger? No wonder I hate math.
“Little Bo Peep”
Origin: Rural France. Young girl runs away from home, acquires twenty sheep and mistakenly eats a hallucinogenic mushroom.
Little Bo peep has lost her sheep/
And doesn’t know where to find them/
Leave them alone/
and they’ll come home/
Bringing their tails behind them/
Little Bo peep fell fast asleep/
And dreamt she heard them bleating/
But when she awoke, she found it a joke/
For they were all still fleeting/
Then up she took her little crook/
Determined for to find them/
She found them indeed/
but it made her heart bleed/
For they left their tails behind them/
It happened one day, as Bo peep did stray/
Into a meadow hard by/
There she espied their tails side by side/
All hung on a tree to dry/
She heaved a sigh, and wiped her eye/
And over the hillocks went rambling/
And tried what she could/
As a shepherdess should/
To tack again each to its lambkin.
What’s wrong with this woman? She is demonstrating an unacceptable work ethic. How do you lose an entire flock of sheep? I understand misplacing one. Maybe there’s just one really slow, stubborn sheep that can’t be left near water by himself or he’ll fall in for no reason. Fine, I get it; you gave up and “lost” that one because his bleating was driving you bonkers. Maybe he was the Sloth of your Goonies — thanks for the friendship, but direct eye contact is entirely unnecessary.
But how do you lose an entire group of large, fluffy creatures with weird, satanic eyes? Is their high-pitched, collective whine somehow to be confused with anything else? This woman is lazy, and is obviously not a role model for young members of the Future Farmers of America (is that still around?)
I’m certain that this song was a metaphor of some sort, and was intended to reach beyond the practical absurdities of its actual plot. Maybe it was even some sort of referential examination of the economic problems of the time. But who cares? You have a female guarding a bunch of sheep. There’s your problem. It isn’t proper woman’s work, I say.
I’m not even going to address the business of the missing tails.
“Hush Little Baby”
Origin: Beverly Hills, California. Rich dad instills proper male-female relationship etiquette in young daughter, and then drags her to the Tesla dealership.
Hush little baby, don’t say a word/
Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird/
And if that mockingbird won’t sing/
Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring/
And if that diamond ring turns brass/
Papa’s gonna buy you a looking glass/
And if that looking glass gets broke/
Papa’s gonna buy you a billy goat/
And if that billy goat won’t pull/
Papa’s gonna buy you a cart and bull/
And if that cart and bull fall down/
You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town.
If your goal here is silence, then why the mockingbird? Do you know how loud those things are? They will repeat everything you say. Especially baby cries. Infinite loop of undesirable sound.
Secondly, why does a baby need a diamond ring? Isn’t that kind of a waste? On the off chance that this backfires, then by all means, give your baby a looking glass so she can inherit the family vanity.
Then, things get a little tangential. How did you go from diamonds and mirrors to goats and carts? What use would a baby have for these things? If she’s still the sweetest baby in town (wasn’t your initial plan to get her to go to sleep? Quit sucking up), then where’s her motivation to do what you ask of her?
Clearly, this song is designed to instill the sugar daddy mentality early on: do as I say, and I shall give you things you don’t even really want.
All of these songs are making efforts to teach morality. I guess. But underneath them all is a strain of hostility. Why not just ask your kids to do the things you want them to do, rather than threatening them with compromising outcomes?
I could elucidate this with further examples, but I have to dead bolt my door because our neighborhood paddy whacker has escaped the convalescent home again.
Virginia Petrucci is a freelance fiction and non-fiction writer, and a former model and actress. She has a bachelor’s degree in Theatre and English, and is pursuing further education in Psychology. She has a one-year old son named Dante.