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Lady Lullaby Blog

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

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Real Story of The Pretty Horses

Lullabies are for loving and for kvetching in small and big ways. To continue on the theme of last week, today we look at the story behind the song—in this case one of the most popular of our American lullabies.

“All The Pretty Little Horses” is from the African-American tradition. I loved singing this song when my kids were babies, but never thought about where it came from or what it meant. I couldn’t quite figure out how the horses and the butterflies fit together, but it was pretty and it worked to put the kids to sleep.

Like all traditional lullabies, there are many different versions. But most of them that are sung today have been softened from the hard truth of the original story: that African women slaves had to leave their babies alone to take care of the master’s baby instead. In the original version the woman is singing to that baby:

Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry, go to sleepy little baby
When you wake you will have all the pretty little horses
Dapples and greys, pintos and bays
All the pretty little horses

Way down yonder, down in the meadow
Sweet little baby crying “mama”
The birds and the butterflies peckin’ at his eyes
Sweet little baby crying “mama.”

All right, that explains the horses—that rich baby would grow up to own all those pintos and bays. In the sanitized version I learned, the last two lines are more charming:

The birds and the butterflies flutter all around his eyes,
Sweet little baby crying “mama.”

Although it’s a sad story, keep singing this song. Lullabies relay history that we shouldn’t ignore or forget. But sing it in a sweet and loving way, because no matter what the words say or what the real story is, at lullaby time the main message you want to convey to your baby is love.

Sweet Dreams,

Here is the legendary folksinger Odetta singing the real story:

Listen to "All The Pretty Little Horses":


amjp said...

Very moving. I loved Odetta. I have a few of her CDs, but not this song. I hadn't heard it this way before and didn't know this story. Thanks for telling it here, Jane.


Jade Graham said...

that African women slaves had to leave their babies alone to take care of the master’s baby instead.

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