Simple songs that endure.
Each of my children has a different bedtime routine. One likes to have a story read to him, another likes to read a story out loud to me. One wants to spend 20 minutes going through every single prayer he knows. Twice. But none, in the course of twelve years, has ever requested a lullaby.
So when my youngest turned two, and her vocabulary erupted in a flurry of sound, she started making all her requests known. And every night, one of those requests was for a song. I don’t know how she knew that lullabies existed, certainly I never let on. I was gifted with many things, but a pleasing voice was not one of them. However, if an adorable two year old requests a bedtime song, you give her a bedtime song.
I found myself searching my memory, frantically, for a something to sing my child. Truth is, I just don’t know that many by heart–not the words, not the melody–and somehow, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” didn’t conjure up the restful mood I was hoping to cultivate.
Slowly, sluggishly, two songs rose to the surface of my memory. I don’t know who taught them to me, or when I sang them, but oddly enough, “Clementine” and “Molly Malone” were both there–music, lyrics, and all–in the depths of my brain. Haltingly, I sang them to my daughter, who curled up in my arms, squeezed her eyes shut, and smiled contentedly. So every night, I’d sing her one or the other of those songs, and she’d go to sleep happy.
Then one evening, my oldest daughter stayed in the room while I put her little sister to bed. I looked at her over my shoulder as I sang, and was puzzled to see a scowl on her face. I finished singing about Clementine’s sad fate and put my youngest in bed, covered her up, and shooed my surly looking oldest child out into the hallway.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, thinking that my singing was mediocre, certainly, but hardly deserving of a full-on scowl.
“All those songs. Why can’t you sing something that isn’t about death?” I blinked at her for a moment, not understanding. She sighed and continued. “Everything you sing is about people dying. Can’t you sing a happy song?”
I shrugged at her. “I like those songs. But I don’t know. What do you suggest I sing?”
“What about ‘Roar’? Or ‘Let it Go’? Or-“ I held up a hand for her to stop. She sighed again. “Ok, what about a church song? Like ‘Gather Us In’?”
At this point, I actually winced, like she’d punched me in the gut. I looked at her to see if she was just teasing me. She has her father’s deadpan humor delivery, so it’s impossible to tell.
Later that night, I thought about the conversation. Was it morbid to sing songs about death to a baby? Was I actually a suburban Morticia Adams, crooning funeral dirges to my child? Were these songs somehow subliminally damaging her?
Then I realized these folk songs endure even in our Katy Perry/Jay Z culture because they tell stories about the dignity of common, hidden lives. Every song my daughter had mentioned, from “Roar” to “Gather Us In” was about the self, while “Clementine” and “Molly Malone” were about beloved Others (note to composers of “sacred music”–if you’re invoking the human self more frequently than the Godhead, you’re doing it wrong).
These old songs were about simple, hidden lives. They were about tragic endings to those lives that showed a relationship to death this is lost to our culture. Now, we think we’ve vaccinated, chemo-therapied, and nutritioned death into our control. We are angry and affronted when we realize we’re wrong. We want to blame someone for the death–can you imagine how quickly Protective Services would have been on the Miner 49er for putting his child in wooden shoes and sending her down to a slippery pond? We are embarrassed and fumbling when death occurs, so we try to glamorize it or sanitize it, but there’s not much glamorous or tidy about a fish seller dying of a fever.
The old songs that I remembered stuck with me because they told simple stories about simple lives. The deaths were sad because they ended those lives, but the death wasn’t the point. And while neither “Clementine” nor “Molly Malone” are religious songs, there is a very Christian sensibility to them–each life is valuable, even those of the poor and unknown, and while death will come for us all, it’s not the end.
Those are the sorts of things I want my children to grow up taking to heart, and so, I’ll sing them to my littlest daughter so they’ll sink deep into her mind. Maybe, years from now, her daughter will request lullabies, and the stories of Clementine and Molly will go forward into another generation.
Cari Donaldsonis the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories: How I Found God, Had Kids, and Lived to Tell the Tale. She married her high school sweetheart, had six children with him, and now spends her days homeschooling, writing, and figuring out how to stay one step ahead of her child army. She blogs about faith and family life at clan-donaldson.com.