Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 10, 2017

The lilting language of lullabies

I recently read “Rock-a-Bye Baby’s Rocky Roots” in the June 2017 “Discover” magazine. Author Yao-Hua Law’s article made me think about the lullabies Mom sang to my brother Dave, sister Gaila and me, and of those I sang to daughters Mariya and Katie.

Gaila and I were only 16 months apart and we shared a room, so we remember a lot of the same things - including Mom singing what we thought was “Tura lura lura” as she tucked us into bed. The title was actually “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby),” written for the 1913 musical, “Shameen Dhu.” or “Black-Haired Jimmy.” The song was #1 that year, but I think Mom became familiar with it when Bing Crosby returned it to the charts in 1944 after reprising it in the movie “Going My Way.” I can still sing the refrain:

Hush now don’t you cry!
That’s an Irish lullaby.

Gaila said she sang the “Barney” song to daughters Gabriela and Larisa while lying in bed with them: “I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family. With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won’t you say you love me, too.”

I rocked Mariya and Katie while singing “Edelweiss,” a song from “The Sound of Music.” Katie remembers my doing that. Another was “Hush Little Baby” - although I didn’t really know the words and so I made them up as I went along:

Hush, little baby, don’t you cry
Mama’s going to sing you a lullaby.
If that lullaby’s not heard,
Mama’s going to buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird won’t sing,
Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring.
And if that diamond ring won’t shine,
Mama’s going to buy you a doll so fine ...

The singing and rocking might not have made the kids tired, but I was soon so sleepy that I couldn’t think of more words. So I’d hum the tune or switch to “Brahm’s Lullaby” (“Lullaby and Goodnight)” or “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Eventually, the girls would drift off and I could put them down and creep out of the room.

Art’s mother Donna could sing all the words to “Down by the Old Mill Stream” when she was just 3. She thought her mother sang it to her when she was a baby. That well may be true as the song was a huge hit in 1910 - the year Donna was born.

Perhaps words spoken softly near the end of the day by someone we feel close to qualify as a lullaby at any age. Sometimes when husband Art and I are in bed, but not ready to go to sleep, I’ll ask him to read me an article or two from a magazine. A neighbor mentioned that at bedtime she’d sometimes ask her husband to tell her a story to clear her head so she could settle down to sleep.

The origin of the word “lullaby” is uncertain. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary suggests it comes from the Middle English “lulla” - to lull - and “by.” But singing them, the “Discover” article suggests, is far older. Author Law quoted psychologist Sandra Trehub, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto Mississauga, who said, “There seems to be evidence of singing to infants throughout recorded history.”

Some researchers, according to Law’s article, are looking into how and why humans created these songs. In January, Harvard University evolutionary psychologist Max Krasnow and graduate student Samuel Mehr published the first formal theory on the origins of lullabies in “Evolution and Human Behavior.” The songs, the researchers say, may have been the result of infants wanting more attention than their parents had time to give.

Shannon de l’Etoile, another researcher mentioned in the article and a professor of music therapy at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, supports that explanation. She mentioned the theory that songs directed at infants evolved out of the need for “hands-free parenting.” She says the mother, in addition to taking care of the infant, also needed to get water and prepare food. Singing allowed mothers to put their children down while still reassuring them.

Evolution may have also played a role in preserving the singing of lullabies. “If the infant’s making a fuss, it could attract a predator,” she said. “A mother effective at using her voice to calm her infant would be more likely to survive - and the infant would be more likely to survive, too...”

Many lullabies do contain warnings, according to Richard Dumbrill, a leading expert on ancient music with the British Museum in London. One example was mentioned in a January 2013 BBC World Service article “The universal language of lullabies.” It described one from Babylonia that was etched in cuneiform script on a tablet from about 2,000 BC in what is now modern-day Iraq. In the lullaby, the baby is reprimanded for disturbing the house god with its crying.

Dumbrill said such lullabies “... try to tell the child that he has made a lot of noise, that he woke up the demon, and if he doesn’t shut up right now, the demon will eat him.”

The article added that the English “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” lullaby also contains danger. In the song, the cradle, tied to a bough, falls when the tree limb breaks.

These ideas don’t seem like something that would send me into a blissful sleep. But Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology and also quoted in the BBC article, said all lullabies - even the scary ones - are rooted in “love, tenderness and caring.”

So perhaps the words are not as important as who is speaking them and how. I know the soft lilting language with words that were familiar from being repeated night after night by a mother who loved me, made me feel safe and warm.

And when I hear a lullaby now or hum one to myself, it still does.

Art's grandmother Alvina holding his mother Donna.

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