Lullabies Project

Lullabies from Around the World

I have started collecting traditional lullabies from all over the world, initially drawn to them because of their tender and soothing qualities, and the light playfulness was refreshing after doing an album's worth of laments! (Although, of course, many lullabies are sad in their own way. More on that below.) As the project has progressed I have had many chances to ponder their melodies and meanings, and have grown fascinated with the subject in new ways.


One of the most interesting things about lullabies is that they are a very personal, private genre, as the usual audience is often too young to understand the words and falling asleep as well! Because of this, the singer can express him- or herself with complete honesty, and any virtuosity is natural and artless, or simply to amuse oneself while also accomplishing the practical purpose of mesmerizing a young mind into slumber. Of course, all of the lullabies I have been listening to did make their way eventually onto recordings, and there was inevitably some self-editing in that process, but still, as a group, they are remarkably pure and raw, and revealing of how people really feel and think.

I would divide them into these types: praise and adoration; threats and teasing (often hard to tell the difference); personal musings, often sad and wistful; and stories, often with animals as characters. The first, praise and adoration, seems rather obvious and doesn't require much explanation. Likewise, personal musings, when we think of it as a private genre, seems very understandable. The stories about animals may be to entertain children old enough to briefly follow the short, strange plots, and to teach them culturally important words and motifs. It is the second type, the threats, that amuses and surprises us and requires a little more explanation.

These threats, mild or outrageous, are found in many traditions. Much has been commented about the rather violent words, When the wind blows, the cradle will rock; when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. The image of a cradle in a tree stems from a time when cradles really were hung from branches, as much of the household work was done out of doors. But why predict catastrophe? Does this reflect an aggression formed of sleepless nights, changing diapers, and listening to ear-piercing screaming? Or is it a teasing joke? Perhaps both, and in addition there is a third reason, I believe: I think it reflects a widespread human superstition that one can ward off bad things by naming them, sometimes dismissively, sometimes with humor, sometimes as if one honestly expects them; because expecting the best, or drawing attention to good fortune, is a kind of hubris and risks bringing down the wrath of the gods. This is related to the idea of the evil eye, where the spirits will become interested and jealous if they hear of a particularly beautiful, wonderful baby, but will pass on if they think there is enough misfortune there already.


Another quality of lullabies is the intriguing mix of human universals with cultural specificity. On the one hand, certain themes, intervals, and even melodic phrasings show up again and again in lullabies from places completely removed from each other. Perhaps this points towards innate or genetically inherited mental structures pertaining to music (related to those sounds that will make some sense to and therefore comfort a baby). On the other hand there is some way in which a lullaby contains a kind of blueprint or map for a specific culture. I believe both can be explained by the fact that people from all walks of life might be called upon to remember or come up with a lullaby: they are not reserved for people with special skills, and the most beloved of them all, those that are passed from generation to generation, are those that are comprehensible and memorable, and perhaps even pretty, to the widest number of people. In this way, the melodies reflect and conform to a kind of group psyche, with a result that reveals both deep univerals of music and simultaneously some of the most archetypal musical and linguistic information of a given culture.

There are different ways to group lullabies. One is by language. Another way is by the specific word that is used to signify the concept of lullaby itself: for example, from the European traditions, we have lullay or ljulje, bai bai, do do, tule, byssan lull or vyssa lulla, aia tuia, seothin seo (pronounced shohin sho), ro ro, ho ho, and nani (alteranatively nanna, nam, and numi). These words form interesting swaths and patterns across vast geographical territories, often etymologically unrelated to the rest of the song. I believe they might be remnants of mother or grandmother tongues, almost like a mitochondrial DNA of lullabies. (Interestingly, these words also reveal certain phonetic preferences, namely palatalized consonants and dark vowels.)


One day a friend of mine, knowing my interest in lullabies, sent me a recording he had made of his own mother. While visiting her in the village where he grew up, in the mountains of Jordan, he overheard her singing to his young nephew in the next room, and slipped his tape recorder into his pocket, knowing she would stop singing if she knew she was being recorded. The recording captures various household noises, pots and pans, rain, the singer repeatedly interrupting herself for snatches of conversation, and then always returning to the soothing, repetitive refrain. It occurred to me suddenly, listening to this voice that was so entirely genuine and unselfconscious, that lullabies are like spells or sorcery, ritual incantations, and that these words have a secret, magical power, in the ancient sense of the animism of language, the non-virtual reality and power of the spoken and sung.


One of the most enjoyable parts of this project is being able to dip into so many cultures and languages at their most accessible. They are, for the most part, simple and repetitive melodies, although no less beautiful for it. Everyone can relate to these songs, and it's also a wonderful reminder, if we ever need one, of our common humanity.