Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The lost art of lullaby

I have just come downstairs from singing my children to sleep. What a wonderful experience. No fighting or tears, just two sweaty little bodies gradually growing limper in my arms as slumber and song intertwined and lulled them, my words perhaps painting the start of their dreams.

Bedtime here is usually books and cuddles, sometimes a CD. Perhaps ours is the first generation not to soothe our children to sleep with song. We have so many other options. And so can forget the power and the simplicity of our mother voices, singing the songs of our ancestors, passing on melody and words to the next generation.

I am a writer and yet I find storytelling almost impossible. I want my children to experience the joy of story outside of books, but find I have storyteller's block! Tonight, however, I realised that for me, the storytelling urge comes through song. Interestingly, that is how knowledge, wisdom and history have been passed through the generations: through the medium of song.

Each of my children from their first weeks of life had their own personal song with their name in it. My son, Timmy Solas Shanti had the sea shanty, Bobby Shafto's Gone to Sea changed for his name. Merrily, of course, gets Row, Row, Row Your Boat, and Aisling has had Goodnight Irene adapted to her name. They each love their songs and regularly request them. I am never allowed to sing just one, always the trio, they insist upon this fairness themselves. And they have to be sung in descending order of age! I have also developed a repertoire of songs which I have sung to them since they were young when walking the country lanes with them in a sling or buggy trying to get them to go to sleep. Not only must the tune be soothing, but I want the words to be meaningful. I sing to their souls, and pass on my mother wisdom this way, under the radar, all too aware that even little children do not like to be lectured on life by their parents: Que Sera Sera; You Are My Sunshine; Peace Like a River; Over the Rainbow; Amazing Grace; Moon Shadow and So Glad I'm Here are my classics.

But this night I took it further. I summoned to memory my favourite hymns from childhood: All Things Bright and Beautiful; I Vow to Thee My Country; Silent Night; Morning Has Broken; Swing Low Sweet Chariot – songs of soul, god and nature, songs to make the spirit and voice soar together. For years I have wondered how to pass on my own understanding of the spirit to them. We do not go to church together, I have too many issues with organised religion, and yet I always loved the music. At Cambridge I went to church twice a day on a Sunday to lose myself in the exquisite beauty of my college choir in the ancient chapel. I love to sing and yet, since being told, aged twelve, that I couldn't by a peer, I have always been shy of singing alone. I have a recurring fear of opening my mouth and my voice drying up. The panic of singing alone was so great that I left drama school a nervous wreck after the first year, knowing that my first task in second year was to stand on stage and sing alone. And so I find it freeing to sing my children to sleep. It doesn't have to be perfect.

As a mother I find singing to my children is a primal calming mechanism. The sound of my voice and gentle rhythm calm both baby and mother. Hearing my voice, being aware of my breath, song draws me both deeper into myself and yet lets me float away, it engages my brain, swirling with thoughts and demands that I concentrate. It gives me new words. It takes the harshness, anger, frustrations away and soothes me.

I have always dreamed of being a family that sings together, not quite a Von Trapp family, but one which sings together as a way of being together. I have a friend who sings with her grown up siblings at every family event: weddings, christenings and funerals, they sing as one. For me there is magic in a group of people joined in song, a spine-tingling sensation, which is made more profound when the people are related. I dream for my family this way of shared expression. To this end I make sure we sing together regularly during the day which they love. I dream of a family choir, like one I read about in an alternative parenting magazine, where whole families gather together, perhaps one day a month to sing together, men and women, children of all ages, descants and trebles, sopranos and basses, all breathing, all singing, all together.

This night music is a tradition I want to build on, one which I hope will live in their aural memories forever, songs to calm and soothe and nourish their spirits, songs which will become part of their being.

Dreaming Aloud Column - JUNO, Winter 2010


  1. That's sweet. I've been singing my kids to sleep for so long I don't think they could fall asleep without it.

  2. What a beautiful post. I also sing my daughter to sleep, and it never occurred to me that others don't do the same!

  3. I linked to your lullaby post in my lullaby post: http://ichigomeansstrawberry.blogspot.com/2011/03/lullabies.html

  4. This is so beautiful. I'm going to have to follow up on some of those song titles to add them to our repertoire. My daughter LOVES me singing 'you are my sunshine' with her name in it and today she sung it to me 'noone can take my Mummy away' you can imagine how beautiful it was! I definitely have to make our night time songs more regular again. I also love the image of a family who sings together.



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