How do lullabies connect us to our past?

Kinderling News & Features

Shevonne Hunt hosts Kinderling Conversation every weekday at 12pm.

One of the things that intrigues me most about lullabies is how they connect us to our history - both cultural and personal.

A friend told me she often sings Kentucky lullabies to her children, as a way of remembering her home. I sing the lullabies my mum sang to me because they’re a precious memory of my own childhood, that I’d like to recreate for my kids.

Judging by our lullaby survey - asking parents about their favourite lullaby - I’m not alone. Sometimes the connection is subconscious, sometimes not. Like this lovely example from Sarah:

Emily Eagen is a teaching artist at Carnegie Hall, she’s also part of The Lullaby Project that connects new and expecting mums with composers to write their own songs to their babies. It’s led Emily to research the history and social context of lullabies.

Lullabies have been around for a very long time, there’s evidence of one from 2000 BC in ancient Babylonia. The song itself tells the baby to calm down or ‘the house god’ will get it. Lyrics in lullabies (thank goodness) have changed over time.

There are ones that relate to the birth of Jesus, cherishing the baby and wishing it to sleep. Some are aspirational, including ones that sing about babies growing up to be kings, a Sephardic lullaby that dreams the baby will learn the law and become a leader of the people. You may also know the Skye Boat song, with lyrics sing about a baby who’s been taken away but will one day come back and save the Scottish people.

Left: New mothers work with professional musicians. Right: Emily Eagen researches lullabies.

These are definitely songs of their time, with many ambitious songs being sung to boys, whereas songs to girls tended to be about the sorrow and woe that awaited them in womanhood.

While lullaby lyrics these days are more egalitarian, there is still, for me, a bitter sweetness in them.

Emily says that the exclusivity of lullabies (they are normally just between you and your baby) can make them more personal.

“I feel the complexity of motherhood as I’m singing to my children, and I really like that lullabies can have a complicated edge,” she says. “You’re singing for yourself as well as singing for your baby, and that’s where some of that richness can come in. Especially before your child can talk or understand what you’re saying you’re alone and you’re processing these feelings and you can really speak your mind.”

Listen to lullabies that Emily loves:

During her work with Carnegie Hall, Emily has come across many family traditions of singing that connects people to their cultural history. Some of the songs might be in a foreign language that nobody understands anymore, but it’s a way of keeping that history alive.

Emily says that lullabies are full of rich connection for families, some of its historical and some of it’s simply about the personality of the family member; “It’s just so interesting the songs that people remember their parents singing, a lot of them they’re silly or they’re funny or they’re something that reveals something about that parent, the parent might not sing during the day, or be particularly funny or [be good at] storytelling, but at night in the dark they can show that side of themselves.”

Listen to our favourite songs from The Lullaby Project with our Settle Petal Special:

Do you have a family song that you sing? Are there any that connect you to your cultural past? Please share with us, we’d love to hear.

Or listen to the full interview with Emily (it’s worth it just to hear the song she sings to her kids at night):

Kinderling Kids Radio is celebrating lullabies this month, covering the science behind it, plus sharing personal stories and music - check out more.

You can also listen to Dr Anita Collins’ podcast 'The Lullaby Effect' from July 3. Download from iTunes or your favourite Android platform.