My mother claims to be a terrible singer. As a child, this really didn’t matter to me, what I cared about was the familiarity and comfort of the lullabies she would sing to me. It wasn’t until my twenties when I realized that one of the songs of my childhood is actually about an alcoholic hallucinating a cast of characters and asking the very deep question of whether his imaginary snake sees him when drunk. Clearly excellent material for children.
It wasn’t until my first son was born that I realized I was lacking in the lullaby department. One of my friend’s husband told me that any song you know can be a lullaby if you sing it that way. I took this approach when I needed nighttime material. My first son was soothed to sleep in his first three months by the mellowed out versions of Sublime’s “Don’t Push,” “Saw Red“, and “Pool Shark,” as well as anything else that I could think of in the moment. I threw in some other contemporary tunes, like “The Drama Summer,” some gentler standbys like Bob Marley and of course, the alcoholic snake song I knew from my mom.
At some point in those early months I realized that it might not be the best idea to sing songs about being unable to stop shooting heroin to my sweet little infant, and “Pool Shark” was cut. That was the first of many realizations that some of my song material isn’t that kid-appropriate.
Don’t repeat my lullaby mistakes
There are some things I wish I had taken into account when I began singing my first son lullabies. Here are tips to avoid my mistakes:
- You will be singing the same song or songs every night and even for naps for years on end. I hope you like it enough to hear it at least 1,000 times annually.
- Make sure you can sing the song. Anything that strains your voice, that you have to get louder to hit a note, or that you don’t like how you sing it will be challenging on your repeat performances. My version of “Golden Slumbers” is off-key about 60% of the time, but it’s in the rotation so I’m stuck.
- Pay attention to the bounceability of the song – is the tempo one that corresponds better with bouncing the baby, rocking or swaying? My first son was a bouncer and my second one is into swaying. I find my movement and singing tend to line up with each other, which is problematic if it’s a bouncy song and I should be swaying; I end up with a startled baby.
- If there are questionable lyrics, make sure you feel comfortable with the message. It’s also important that you would be able and willing to explain a word or concept to a toddler if they ask. This is how the Sublime songs got cut out of the rotation altogether, and why I’ve given thought to how I could explain government yards, hypocrites, atomic energy or being sold to merchant ships. I’m still working on my answers to these unasked questions, and will continue singing “No Woman, No Cry” and “Redemption Song” in the meantime.
- Have your B-Side playlist. You’ll be in a groove and your kid will love hearing a song 15,000 times until one day they don’t want anything you can remember. This is when I’ve pulled out “Hush Little Baby” and made up the words with things that rhyme, and how a half-finished version of “You are my Sunshine” got thrown into the mix.
- Your child will start requesting songs that don’t exist, and will be very emphatic that you sing these songs. There are two choices here: you can tell them that you don’t know it and deal with their freak out, or just wing it to a tune you know. I’ve found that songs about firemen go smoothly enough to the tune of Brahm’s Lullaby (Lullaby and Goodnight,” or as my two-year old calls it, “Goodnight Fireman, close windows, take off boots, WOO WOOO WOOOOOO!”
- If you know your kid is into something, see if you know songs that roughly correlate. My two-year old is obsessed with vehicles. I’ve been able to throw songs I already know into the mix with new titles. The Phish song “Contact” is “Tires,” and I just gloss over the cocaine part of the Dead’s “Truckin'” and he’s into it because the word truck is involved.
Lullabies to learn
If you aren’t feeling very creative, or if you’re looking at this in the middle of the night in a lullaby material rut, here are song suggestions for you including some those previously mentioned:
- Golden Slumbers
- All my Loving
- Oh Darling
- Grateful Dead:
- And we Bid you Goodnight
- Sugar Magnolia
- Uncle John’s Band
- Bob Marley:
- No Woman, No Cry
- Redemption Song
- Hush Little Baby
- You are my Sunshine
- Amazing Grace
- Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby
- The Drama Summer
- Oh my Darling Clementine
- Wish me a Rainbow
Your kid really doesn’t care if you’re a great singer or not, at least in the first few years. The gentleness of the song, the repetition, and the safety and comfort it represents is all that really matters. Again, you will sing these songs a million times. Choose wisely, and good luck.