Lady Lullaby Links

Lady Lullaby Blog

Lullabies for babies, grown-ups and everyone in between!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sing with Love and Caution

Rock-a-bye baby, 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

Do you find yourself mumbling the words to “Rock-a-Bye Baby” when you sing it to your child? I did, afraid that somehow that image would scar my children for life. Maybe they wouldn’t climb trees. Maybe they would be scared of the wind. Maybe they wouldn’t feel that the world wasn’t a safe place, if Mom would hang them from a branch that was likely to break off.

What kind of parent would make up a song like that anyway?

There are several stories about the origin of the lullaby. One says that it was the first poem written by English on American soil, who observed the American Indian tradition of suspending a birch bark cradle in the branches of a tree. While the mother was working, the wind would rock the cradle and the baby would go to sleep. This practical solution for a working mother makes sense to me even if the story isn’t really true.

Another story is more colorful—there was a family in England in the 1700’s who actually lived in a tree, and so they had the right to hang whatever they wanted from it. The tree in this story is a huge, ancient Yew tree, and the family who lived there were charcoal burners named Kate and Luke Kenyon. They had eight children and hollowed out a large tree branch to use as a cradle. OK, maybe. Eight children forces you to be resourceful.

A third theory is the most dramatic of all: that the 17th century tyrant King James, in desperate need of an heir, had a baby boy smuggled into the birthing room. When the story got out it led to his downfall. The “wind” could be the political force “blowing” in from the Netherlands in the form of William of Orange, who kicked James out. The “cradle” is the royal House of Stuart. The earliest recorded version of the words in print come with a footnote: “This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last.”

In any case, I would advise you to either hug your baby very tight when singing this song, or change the words, as my daughter-in-law did:

“And Mommy will catch you, cradle and all!”

Sweet dreams,

The Marx Brothers had a great version of this song:

1 comment:

Abigail said...

Very interesting! I thought the words were so scary back when Howard and Lexanne were born, so I TOTALLY changed the words! Also, for some unknown reason, changed the tune.

Post a Comment