The Cradle Will Rock

by Andrew Gilstrap

20 September 2007

While my wife sings sea chantys to our baby, I'm finding plenty of dark, tranquil passages from Bruce Springsteen to help her sleep. Beats tales of the Black Death, miscarriages, and executions found in traditional nursery rhymes.

My wife and I had our first child, a girl, seven months ago. It’s been a challenge, to say the least. No one tells you how exhausting the first couple of months can be, especially when the colic sets your baby to screaming at the top of her lungs every evening. You certainly don’t hear it from the sunshiny cabal of already-parents, who feel free to hector the childless to join the breeding club (and who don’t give you much rest after you finally do have a child before they start asking when you’re going to have another one).

But those were expected ills—I was a colicky baby myself, so it’s only right that the sins of my infanthood are revisited upon me. One of the more unexpected challenges, though, came in the form of panicked attempts to sing her into calm.  Even now, when she fights sleep at the end of the day—for no good reason other than she hasn’t figured out yet that her parents are boring, that we’re not really doing anything that interesting—a good lullaby-type song helps.

Problem is, we don’t really know what to sing to her. We’re on the late side of our 30s, and before we had our own baby, I’d never even held one, much less serenaded one to sleep.  My wife has nieces and nephews, so she at least retains some distant memories of this phase, but even her repertoire is limited.  She tends to rely on a sea chanty, of all things. Many’s the time I’ve walked into the baby’s room to hear my wife singing, “What do you do with a drunken sailor…” You’d think that, as many times as our parents sang to us when we were kids, we’d just automatically remember the standard lullabies, or that it would be part of our cultural DNA at this point. But no. 

Consequently, I can’t remember the words to even the simplest of children’s songs or nursery rhymes. I can’t even get past the second toe in “This Little Piggy” before I start ad-libbing. By the time I’m done, those piggies have been to the library, the dry cleaners, and everywhere in between. Heck, I probably even took them to a BBQ restaurant once or twice. I guess I could sing my daughter a hymn, those are pretty tranquil, but as a professional backsliding heathen, that feels fairly insincere.

My own bind comes from my years spent cultivating a keen interest in what High Fidelity calls “sad bastard” music—songs that at first blush sound pleasant enough, but which would make Celine Dion fans want to slit their wrists. Take, for example, the Drive-By Truckers’ feud-chronicling “Decoration Day”:

Daddy said one of the boys had come by
the lumber man’s favorite son.
He said, “Beat him real good but don’t dare let him die
and if you see Holland Hill run.”
Now I said, “they ain’t give us trouble before
that we ain’t brought down on ourselves”
But a chain on my back and my ear to the floor
and I’ll send all the Hill boys to Hell.

“Decoration Day” contains stanza after stanza just like that, but my daughter actually likes the song’s cadence, so she hears it a lot. As for me, I’m already envisioning future parent/ teacher conferences:

Teacher: Mr. Gilstrap, I need to talk about your daughter’s response to “Jack and Jill”.
Me: Oh?
Teacher: Yes, her interpretation of it was that both Jack and Jill’s families should, in her words, “form a blood pact and lay waste to whoever owned the land the well was on, to salt the soil of their fields, to bring ruin upon them, no matter how many generations it took.”

: Um, well at the very least, she understands delayed gratification . . .

Or how about Neko Case’s paranoia-laced “Dirty Knife”?

He sang nursery rhymes to paralyze
The wolves that eddy out the corner of his eyes
But they squared him frozen where he stood
In the glow of the furniture piled high for firewood

I’m actually not too worried about that one; it’ll just help my daughter withstand the culture shock of meeting her grandmother’s side of the family, all descended from a man who changed his name the moment he crossed over from Georgia with the law on his heels. A dementia-prone family whose members hold grudges against each other for decades, and who talk to each other only when they’re forced to converge at family elders’ funerals. I guess, when you think about it, “Decoration Day” isn’t such bad prep for that, either.

Despite his reputation as a rocker, Bruce Springsteen’s also penned plenty of dark, tranquil passages that do the trick, such as this bit from “The River”:

Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle
No flowers, no wedding dress

Hey, at least it’s not “Nebraska”, with lyrics like “with a sawed-off .410 on my lap . . . killed everything in my path”. Still, when my daughter hits three or four years old, she’ll probably start asking me to put on the “song about the chicken man” and I’ll have to cue up “Atlantic City”, with its tale of hanging on in the midst of a mob war. The intersection of my Springsteen listening with my daughter’s curiosity is going to cause grief for me at some point anyway, when I have to try to explain, yet again to another woman in my life, that, in the context of “Thunder Road”, the lyric “you ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright” isn’t necessarily an insult.

Yes, these are my options for lullabies. I even kicked into “Stairway to Heaven” not too long ago, and let me tell you, that song makes it harder and harder to maintain a lullaby pace as it goes on. But apparently I’m not alone. Several of my friends have recalled their own shock and amusement when they heard their daughters shouting, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”.

My daughter’s still preverbal, so it’s unlikely any of these song choices are sinking in (although if her first word is “moonshine”, “hell”, or “burned-out Chevrolet”, I won’t really be shocked), but the whole situation does set off our protectiveness alarms a little bit.  Our shared vows for nurturing her development include expected precautions like keeping her away from cigarette smoke, not letting her watch TV for a few years, and making our own baby food from the family’s vegetable garden.

We also joke (kind of) about blacklisting all the dumb children we meet from ever even thinking about dating her. And we definitely don’t want to expose her to age-inappropriate content. Although it’s not that I think there’s anything inherently bad about a song like Uncle Tupelo’s version of “Moonshiner”, Elvis Costello’s “After the Fall”, or James McMurtry’s “Angeline”. It’s just that the songs I’m singing to her are of sufficient complexity that she’ll be in her second decade before she begins parsing some of them out.  I hope.

But it’s not like the accepted canon of nursery rhymes is much better. Even if you don’t subscribe to the controversial school of thought that interprets nursery rhymes like “Ring Around the Rosie” as being about the Black Death, or of “Mary Mary Quite Contrary” being about either miscarriages or executions, there are plenty of traditional songs and rhymes that sound like Fisher Price sponsored a Halloween special.

“Three Blind Mice”? Those mice get their tails cut off with the wife’s butcher’s knife! “Rockabye Baby”? That baby falls out of the flippin’ tree! My little girl loves trees; taking her outside is a sure cure for her crying. I don’t want to make her afraid of trees! Granted, The Wizard of Oz will probably take care of that in a few years, but I’m not rushing that particular trauma.

The old woman who lived in a shoe “had so many children she didn’t know what to do / She fed them some broth without any bread / Then whipped them all and sent them to bed”. Peter Pumpkin Eater “had a wife and couldn’t keep her / He put her in a pumpkin shell / And there he kept her, very well”. Compared to that bit of obsessive male behavior, I’m not sure I should be so worried about the blue-collar tales of woe I’m whispering in my child’s ear.

And what about this one?

Ladybug!  Ladybug!
Fly away home.
Your house is on fire
And your children all gone.
All except one,
And that’s little Ann,
For she crept under
The frying pan.

Photo from Cool Crazy Images

Photo from Cool Crazy Images

A variation of that made for a heck of a chorus in Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” (which I’ve also crooned to her), but it’s hard to believe it brings much comfort to children. Yes, yes, I know that repetition and a sing-songy rhythm is the name of the game, but that one’s just weird. Although to be honest, I’ve never been a fan of bowdlerizing and Disney-fying nursery rhymes and fairy tales, so I have to admit that I like the grit that these old lyrics contain—I think it holds some intrinsic value. As far as I’m concerned, Bruno Bettelheim was right: leave the darkness in, so a child’s subconscious can help pick their favorites, and help work through issues and fears they can’t verbalize.

This is probably a moot point, anyway. In five years’ time, my little girl will be dragging me to the Wiggles Reunion Tour, the Teletubbies, Part II: The Quickening, Hey Gabba Gabba, or whatever the big thing is for kids then. A few years from now, I’ll be the one standing cross-armed at the kiddie concerts, with my tattered Drive-By Truckers t-shirt hidden under something more sensible, with a tear forming in the corner of my eye, wishing the Veggie Tales would sing something with a little more angst.

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