Richard Thompson’s ditty “End of the Rainbow” may be the bleakest song ever written. With its chorus of:
Life seems so rosy in the cradle,
But I’ll be a friend I’ll tell you what’s in store.
There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow.
There’s nothing to grow up for anymore.
It’s difficult to imagine a more desolate, dismal, and depressing philosophy addressed to a child. The Wainwright Sisters cover it on their debut album, Songs in the Dark, along with six songs with the word “lullaby” in their titles and other tunes that function in the same way, including several written by and sung to them by their famous parents.
Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche share Loudon Wainwright III as a father. Martha’s mom was the late Kate McGarrigle (of the duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle) and Lucy’s is Suzzy Roche (of the Roches) with whom Lucy also often performs. The two sisters did not grow up together, but share an affinity in both their professed gloomy attitudes towards life and their tastes for seemingly somber music. Perhaps it was the lullabies they were sung to. Consider the beginning of their dad’s “Lullaby” that they cover here.
Shut up and go to bed
Put the pillow under your head.
I’m sick and tired of all your worries.
Shut up and go to bed.
Imagine how it must of felt growing up to that! Probably pretty good, in a Roald Dahl kind of way. Nastiness has its merits. Wicked has its charms. And even though the sisters pack the album with lullabies, the songs vary is style and substance. They even perform a purely instrumental “Russian Lullaby”.
Songs in the Dark contains classic folk songs, such as “All The Pretty Little Horses”, “Lord Lankin”, and “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”; well-known singer-songwriter compositions like Townes Van Zandt’s “Our Mother the Mountain”, Willie Nelson’s “Dusty Skies”, and Paul Simon’s translation of “El Condor Pasa”; and songs that fit comfortably between them, including Jimmie Rodgers’ “Prairie Lullaby”, and “Hobo’s Lullaby” sung in the style made popular by Woody and Arlo Guthrie, as well as homegrown tunes such as the Roches’ “Runs in the Family” and Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s “Lullaby for a Doll”. The mix of material prevents the tunes from sounding too much the same. While the music shares a consistent acoustic calmness, the sisters can be wry or sarcastic, mellow or stressed, depending on what the particular song suggests. The difference between how they deliver a line like “Do me a favor, don’t bitch in your sleep” and “Do you love a laddie with bonnie brown hair” is much more subtle than the words suggest. Both lyrics share a sense of warm affection to the object of attention.
The Wainwright Sisters can be sloppy: sometimes their harmonies seem out of whack; the instruments come in a tad too early or late. That’s part of the charm of folk music, as are the off-beat and somewhat sinister lyrics and the fact that sometimes the topics may not be appropriate for audiences of all ages. This is not the Music for Little People style of cute professionalism. Songs in the Dark reach back to the roots of traditional music for kids when it was sung as much to provide solace for the parents as well as to entertain the kids.