Lullabies are Creepy


Everyone knows that children’s songs are a just a little bit unsettling.

You’re either singing about children falling down a hill and cracking their heads open, or you’re glorifying the flooding of a tiny spider’s drain pipe home. And let’s not even touch on the macabre horror of telling an inoffensive ladybird that her house is on fire and her children are gone.

But it wasn’t until my first child was born that I realised exactly how creepy lullabies can be.

Rock-a-Bye Baby, in the Treetops
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks the cradles will fall
Down will come baby, cradle and all

Creepy, right? What, you don’t see it?

The rough translation goes something like this:

I love you dear Baby
So I’ll put you in a tree
And when the branch breaks
You’ll fall and die

Or I may be over-thinking it.

Either way, the first time I held Big Brother in my arms and started to sing him this lullaby, I was struck by the wrongness of it. It didn’t feel comforting to sing to him about falling out of a tree.

So I did what anyone would do. I changed the words.

Allow me to present, for the first time ever on the interwebz, the new, improved Jo-style Rock-a-Bye Baby.

Rock-a-Bye Baby, in Mummy’s arms
You close your eyes, you’ll come to no harm
When you wake up, I’ll still be here
And we’ll have fun tomorrow, without any fear

This is the verse I sang time and time again to both my boys, and so far I’ve only come across one downside.

Big Brother is quite vocal about telling everyone else that they’re singing the wrong words.

Have you ever changed the words to a song you’re uncomfortable with?


Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion

17 responses to “Lullabies are Creepy

  1. I think this is great. After all, until recently (until copyrights, until songs became something to be owned) this is how songs worked.

    Stories, too.

  2. My wife’s family are strongly Methodist so we all go to church on Christmas morning. I omit possessive pronouns and some other words when singing hymns; I do not worship the Abrahamic God so singing about him as my Lord would be a statement that their ritual had no power.

    Lullabies are often remnants of pre-mass media reporting: rhymes and songs were the CNN of their day. So many of them are rude or brutal. Fortunately many of them are also written in allusion or metaphor so seem innocent to innocent ears.

    One suggested source of Rock-a-bye baby is the overthrow of James II (alleged to have arranged for a fake heir to be smuggled into the Royal Nursery when he lacked an son) by William of Orange. The overthrowing was sometimes compared to the Protestant Wind which disrupted the Spanish Armada.

    • Nice idea, Dave, that it’s about the overthrow of James II, but I’m always chary of ‘explanations’ about nursery rhymes referring to some historical event without any documentary evidence [Pedant! Boo! Hiss!].

      Having come across many such explanations, I’ve concluded that a large majority of them are down to what I call antiquarian speculation: some 18th- or 19th-century scholarly type suggests such-and-such could be the origin for so-and-so in some county Notes & Queries journal; next thing you know it’s been adopted by not-so-scholarly types, republished and then, willy-nilly, becomes ‘fact’. Not so different from rumours and conspiracy theories spread by the internet.

      My theory, for what it’s worth, is that it’s a baby’s activity rhyme, like A Lady goes a nim-nim-nim (which ends with baby going ‘down into a ditch’) or Seesaw, marjorie daw: it amuses the child, helps bonding between parent and child, encourages communication and vocabulary, and introduces excitement within a safe environment provided by the parent.

      That Rock-a-bye baby was originally a lullaby I’m not necessarily convinced, though that’s what it’s treated as now. Providing alternative words, as you have Jo, has great historical precedence: folksong collectors and cultural historians have always noted variants which makes looking for the ‘true’ origin of any cultural meme a dubious activity.

    • I’m impressed that you go to a church service for a God you don’t worship, to be honest. That’s a huge show of respect for your wife and her family.

      I always enjoy hearing the origins of lullabies and nursery rhymes. Mostly I think they’re a bit of a stretch, but it’s still interesting. (They’re a bit like prophecies — easier to “find” a meaning in retrospect.)

  3. I never liked rockabye baby. Soooo creepy. I used to sing “You are my sunshine” to Noah and then incorporate all kinds of words to prolonged the song, but I’d be crying while I sang it, with my arms extended bouncing him up and down because it was 3 am. Hot Joe enjoys incoporating Jew, Jewish, Jewess or anything to do with my Jewosity whenever possible in every song he hears. He thinks it’s the most fun ever and I’m always amazed at his ability. He really is quite good.

    • Hot Joe is pretty darn good at everything. πŸ™‚

      I used to sing You Are My Sunshine to Big Brother, too. I somehow forgot it when it came to Little Brother, and mostly sang made-up lyrics to other songs. My favourite was sung to the tune to ‘Mandy’. (otherwise known as “Oh Margie, you came and you found me a turkey…”)

      Oh Baby, you came and you gave me a headache
      Won’t you please just be quiet
      Oh Baby, I wish that you would just stop all this crying
      I hope that you really might

  4. That is a far sweeter version. I’m unfortunately stuck with the old since my son like’s the realism I’ve added to it by actually dropping him onto the bed at the end.

  5. You’re so right about Rock-a-bye Baby. I always remember Sloth Fratelli confronting Ma in the Goonies when I think of that song…

    We’ve had an almost-similarish situation with B.T. and “Twinkle Twinkle”. We have this little board book that includes a second verse to the song, which transitions from the star to the moon. B.T. loves to sing the second first, probably more than the first. Problem is: nobody else has ever heard this second verse. So whenever there’s music time at daycare and they single Twinkle Twinkle, he always adds in the second verse and he’s always the only one who knows it.

Speak to me.

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