Hush Little Baby

The following is a nursery rhyme that my father sang to me when I was a child in order to lull me to sleep.

“Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Momma’s gonna buy you a mocking bird. And if that mocking bird won’t sing, Momma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring. And if that diamond ring…turns brass, Momma’s gonna buy you a looking glass. And if that looking glass gets broke [laughs] Momma’s gonna buy you a billy goat. And if that billy goat won’t pull, Momma’s gonna buy you a cart and bull. And if that cart and bull turn over, Momma’s gonna buy you a dog named Rover. And if that dog named Rover won’t bark, Momma’s gonna buy you a horse and a cart. And if that horse and cart falls down, you’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town.”

My informant is my father, a 62-year old English professor in New York City. He remembers his own mother singing this song to him, and traces its roots back to this:

“I and my Mom were the beneficiaries of a folk revival movement that really literally started in Asheville, North Carolina where Peter Seeger and other people were looking for the old songs. But basically they were digging in the Appalachian mountains for songs, and then they made records of these songs. And then the mothers of my mother’s generation heard these songs on the records and then they took them into the nursery. These are old folk songs, but they then become personal through records.”

He appreciates this folk lullaby for two reasons:

“As I sing that, two things occur to me. The rhymes weave. Basically, the thing that makes that a long-lived folk song is that the rhymes tell you about the content. As soon as you’ve got the sound, you’ve got to find the mutation in the next line that rhymes. So I was stuck—I couldn’t remember what happened to the diamond ring. Um, but then I went to brass and that led to looking glass. So basically, it’s a chain in memory. But then the second thing is, this is what’s famous about lullabies. They’re often half-hostile. That is to say, this one ends with “You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town, but really it’s a litany of disaster. It’s like Chad Gadya. Yeah, in other words, everything can wrong all the time. And so—so in one way, one powerful folkloric mode is that it mixes something that feels and sounds good with something that expresses the undertow. Parents are exhausted, they’re kind of angry, right?”

As my father says, this song speaks to the endless minor disasters that can occur while raising a child. It makes sense to me that he laughed while singing the song back to me. He has always enjoyed mocking the emergency state our family enters when something small goes wrong or missing. Furthermore, I believe he enjoys the honesty and duality within the song. It doesn’t present a sugar-coated view of the parent-child dynamic, as so much children’s music tends to. I also think this song, in a sweet and subtle way, expresses how badly parents both want to please their child and to distract their child. The song itself is a distraction, a long link of rhymes structured as so to lull a baby to sleep. Of course the parents want the baby to be happy, but they also want the baby to shut up and go to sleep.