My informant is a mother in her late 40s who works as a database manager for a community college. Her two children are both grown and live away from home. She lives with her husband, their dog and two cats.
My informant used to sing the lullaby written below to her kids when they were infants. She told me: “I like lullabies and I think it worked to calm the kids when they were cranky and tired but couldn’t fall asleep. Maybe it didn’t make a difference, plenty of moms don’t sing to their kids, but me I like music, so I did and they slept.”
Hush little baby, don’t say word
Mamma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird
If that mockingbird don’t sing
Mamma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring
If that diamond ring turns to brass
Mamma’s gonna buy you a looking glass
If that looking glass gets broke
Mamma’s gonna buy you a billy goat
If that billy goat won’t pull
Mamma’s gonna buy you a cart and a bull
If that cart and bull falls down
You’ll still be the sweetest baby in town
So hush little baby, don’t say a word
Mamma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.
My informant told me that she couldn’t remember where she first heard the song, only that she can’t remember not knowing it, so she suspects she learned it in her childhood. She does not remember her parents ever singing it to her. She likes lullabies because she finds them “endearing and calming.” So when she had children she would sing them the ones she remembered from her youth, and others she would look up in books of nursery rhymes.
Lullabies feel personal, even if singing them doesn’t come from a family tradition. The lilting melodies are soothing, and the rhymes innocent and nonsensical, making them easy for parents to share with their kids. The association of lullabies with childhood and our children gives us a sense of the cycle of life, from child to parent, regardless of whether or not we are singing the same lullabies to our kids as our parents sang to us.