Tanzina Vega: This is The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega.
[Rock-a-Bye Baby playing]
Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top
Tanzina: Classic lullabies are recognizable immediately and it might be easy to dismiss these as merely simple children's bedtime songs but there's actually a lot more depth and significance to these melodies than there may appear at first listen. Hannah Reyes Morales is a National Geographic photographer who's been researching lullabies. Her article on the subject, Songs To Soothe, is featured in the December issue of National Geographic Magazine. Hannah and her colleague Rupert Compston traveled around the world recording lullabies and learning what they mean to the caregiver singing them and the children hearing them. This is what one lullaby sounds like in Liberia.
[singing a Liberian lullaby]
Tanzina: Here's another from Mongolia.
[singing a Mongolian lullaby]
Tanzina: Finally, the Philippines.
[singing a Philippine lullaby]
Tanzina: These lullabies all have different sounds but they have many things in common, including the ability to provide emotionally safe spaces for parents and children, to remind immigrants and refugees of home, or to create deep and meaningful connections between people and cultures, even when miles apart. From Syrian refugees living in Turkey to frontline health care workers estranged from their family during the pandemic here in the United States, Hannah told us she witnessed firsthand the power and impact lullabies can have. Her own interest in this research emerged after the first time she sang a lullaby to her stepson.
Hannah Reyes Morales: He was sleeping over in our new place in the city which was a bit far from where he lived with his mum and he was sleeping over for the first time in that space. It was the middle of the night it was like about 2:00 AM or 3:00 AM and he started crying and I started panicking, I was started getting worried. In the midst of my panic about what to do about a crying child, I started to hold him and I started to sing, and then eventually he fell asleep.
I guess in that moment, I started to ask myself, who's whose fears had I really been assuaging in that time? Or was it just about as much as my own fears that I had been assuaging? I started just casually asking people about their experiences of bedtime, their experiences of what were the things that frightened and also reassured them growing up, and I realized how there were just so many different stories in that space that it's one of our most intimate of spaces and that's when I really started delving into this hidden world of lullabies.
Tanzina: Hannah, I confess to you before this interview that I have a 10-month-old son and I don't sing him lullabies but I do have a bedtime ritual that is very sort of rhythmic and almost, I guess, somewhat melodic even though it's not a traditional lullaby. What is a lullaby? Could it be anything that we say or sing to a child when we put them to bed?
Hannah: Well, at least the way we approach this story I was more interested in the more general view of nighttime rituals and so our working definition of a lullaby was very, very broad. When I think about lullabies, I even think about the nighttime sounds we hear and how different that is for everybody around the world, that's sort of part of the fabric from tweaks start going off to sleep.
One of the researchers I spoke to, Laura Cirelli, who studies the science behind maternal song. When I was interviewing her, she explained something to me that I thought was really powerful when she looked at the lullaby not just as really the song but she explained to me that in her research she was looking at the lullaby as sort of this multimodal experience. It's really about feeling mother's gentle rocking, having her face very close to the baby, and feeling the warmth of the hold. For me, that's how I see the lullaby as well.
Tanzina: What's the history of lullabies? I suspect that they're not just happening in the United States. I mean, this is a global phenomenon, isn't it?
Hanna: Yes, it's a global phenomenon. It's not just something that happens across borders, it has also happened through the course of history and through the course of time. The oldest recorded lullaby that we have or the oldest record of a complete lullaby that we know about is this Babylonian lullaby that's about 4000 years old. We're looking at lullaby singing, we've been doing this for millennia.
One of the really cool things about it is that it's been passed on for generations, mostly by women, when I think of lullabies, I guess I think of my own mother, I think about what she passed on to me through lullaby singing. I guess, one of the things that, as a woman, I always thought about was, when I read history books I'm likely looking at history books through the lens of men, and then when I think about lullabies, I was thinking about how much history there is likely composed by women.
Tanzina: Why are they so soothing to children in particular? I mean, there have been studies from the Harvard Music Lab that found that infants who listened to lullabies that weren't even in their own language, and not even from their caregivers were still soothed by them I find that fascinating.
Hanna: Another thing that Laura Cirelli, the researcher I had mentioned earlier to you, had explained to me was, she had this term called infant-directed singing and often infants will know when an adult or a caregiver is specifically directing sound or music to them. One of the things that Samuel Mehr, who's part of the Harvard Music Lab that you mentioned, told me that the interesting thing about lullabies as well as while music is so diverse across cultures, across different backgrounds, that the interesting thing about lullabies is that we as human beings when we're singing a lullaby we're looking at the same set of constraints, you have to put a child to sleep.
In that way, my guess is that we're instinctively maybe slowing down the tempo, singing in a more intentionally soothing way.
Tanzina: Hannah I want to pause for a second and play you some of our listeners because we put this question out to them about what lullabies made a difference in their lives, and we asked them to sing us some of them as well. Take a listen.
Stephanie: My name is Stephanie Hansford, and I'm calling from Port Saint Joe in Florida. When I was a child my mom sang a song to me.
[singing Little Boxes]
Little boxes, Little boxes,
Little boxes full of ticky tacky
And they have little boxes, little boxes
Stephanie: And I can't sing anymore because I'm going to cry.
Caller: I am singing the lullaby that my mother sing to me after our parents divorced when I was 5-6-7-year-old.
[singing Daisy Bell]
Give me your answer do,
I'm half crazy,
Over the love of you.
Caller: That song helps me feel secure at a heart level. I sing it to our two adopted sons for the same reason.
Diana: Hi, this is Diana from Edwardsville and as a Colombian-American, my lullabies were in Spanish. The most popular one was Los Pollitos or the Little Chickies which goes like this.
[singing Los Pollitos]
Los pollitos dicen
Pío pío pío
Cuando tienen hambre
Y cuando tienen frio
Diana: It keeps on going. It is very much a part of my wonderful childhood memories.
Tanzina: Hannah's work inspired me to start singing more lullabies to my 10-month-old son like this one that my mother sang to me,
[singing Qué linda manita]
Qué linda manita que tiene el bebé
Qué linda, qué mona, qué bonita es
Tanzina: Of course, there are more lyrics to that. What do we know about one of the most well-known lullabies in the United States, Rock-a-bye Baby? Because it's almost a little bit like some of our fairy tales, right? I mean, when you listen to the words, it's a little scary.
Hannah: Right. That's one of the interesting things that I found while I was researching this lullaby story, as well as when I was speaking to moms and actually listening to lullabies on the field, was how dark lullabies actually are or how dark they can be, the lyrics are frequently, quite macabre. Rock-a-bye Baby is about a cradle falling from the treetop. I was thinking about that, and I think because a baby doesn't necessarily understand the language, they're getting the soothingness I guess from more the rhythm of the music, the way we express it.
But the lyrics of the lullaby are understood by the caregiver. The way I saw it was that at the end of the day, it's a way for a caregiver to sort of express what's in their heart, and often that includes our fears. The baby falling from the treetop could be many different things, of course, but just that fear of loss being expressed in this precious moment.
For me, that's also one of the things that interested me so much about lullabies. It was how grim the content often was, but towards the end of the story, maybe one of the most surprising revelations to me, at the end of it, we're using these fears to forge our reassurance, to forge ways to soothe ourselves, and it's not just the baby being soothed. There's been studies that singing lullabies soothe not just the baby, but also the caregiver. Stress levels are dropping not just for the baby, but also for the mother.
Tanzina: Speaking of stressful situations, you have spent time talking to people who are living in disproportionately stressful environments, dangerous environments around the world. You've spoken to Syrian refugees who were living in Turkey about lullabies. What have those lullabies meant in really precarious and dangerous situations?
Hannah: Right. For me, I've always in the broader context of my work and not just a story, I've always been very, very interested in safer space-making. I've always been interested-- one of the things that I also had before I did this story, was I was covering the war on drugs in the Philippines, and I witnessed families singing lullabies to babies amidst very harmful environment, sometimes amidst gunfire.
I always felt like that was a really powerful moment, that in these spaces of high harm, in these spaces of high threat, that we as human beings, we still manage to find ways to keep each other safe. The way I saw the lullaby, it was that that was part of the fabric in which we create these safe spaces often. For Syrian refugees, in particular, I was speaking with them the Carnegie Lullaby project. They link up teaching artists, they link up professional musicians with different mothers.
One of their projects was working with refugee mums, and collaborators for the project described lullabies as portable sanctuaries, these things that you can take with you anywhere you go. We saw that when we were reporting on the field. We saw how lullabies were crossing borders. A lot of the women that we met, the Syrian women that we met were singing lullabies from Syria to children who hadn't been to Syria, and a few of them were telling us how it made them feel as if they were making a way for the child to have a connection to a place that they're from, but a place that they had never been to.
We've also seen like lullabies evolved as the stories of people change. One of the refugee mothers that we met, Khadija, she used to sing just these wonderful sweet lullabies to her eldest son, but after the conflict escalated and after they were displaced into Turkey, she started singing lullabies to her youngest son, but they were lullabies about the war. It was really poignant being there in the room as she did that, and I realized how within the lullabies that she sang are parts of herself and parts of her history and parts of her experience, and that her children will hopefully carry with them as they grow up.
Tanzina. You also spoke to healthcare workers in Massachusetts, that because of the pandemic had to be quarantined from their family, and yet they used lullabies to connect with their children during that time. What was that like?
Hannah: Right. That was when our projects really took a pivot. We had all these places that we still wanted to go to, and we had researched on. Then the pandemic happened and I found myself caught in Boston, where I'm not from, I'm from the Philippines. We started looking at how to-- One, we weren't sure but, of course, "What do lullabies look like in the context of the pandemic?" was the question we were asking. I guess, I'd always seen lullabies and physical closeness, as a way that we protect our children and protect each other. Part of keeping ourselves safe is being close.
Of course, in the context of the pandemic, the way that healthcare workers, who are working in COVID units, were keeping their children and their families safe, was to be physically distant from them and to isolate from them. While we met actually a lot of grandmothers who were very worried that lullabying wasn't happening anymore because of technology, we also saw how in this particular instance, or in this particular case, the technology was bridging that distance, and providing an opportunity for people to connect amidst all these real challenges, and these real challenging situation.
Tanzina: Hannah Reyes Morales is a National Geographic photographer who's been researching lullabies around the world. Her article on the subject, Songs to Soothe, was featured in the December issue of National Geographic Magazine. Hannah, thanks so much for joining us.
Hannah: Thank you so much for having me.
Tanzina: All right, we're going to hear some more of your favorite lullabies, and what they meant to you.
Daniel: Hi, this is Daniel Creamer, from Aurora, Colorado. I don't remember being sang many lullabies as a child, but I sing Golden Slumbers by Beatles to my two-year-olds as we fight for nap time over quarantine.
[singing Golden Slumbers]
Once there was a way
To get back homeward.
Once there was a way
To get back home
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby.
Golden slumbers fill your eyes
Daniel: Thank you, and happy sleeping.
Erica Sand: This is Erica Sand calling from Cary, North Carolina. My daughter, who is 16 now, I made up a song for her. When she woke up every morning I would sing-
Good morning, morning, morning to my pretty princess.
Good morning, morning, morning to my pretty princess.
Good morning, good morning, good morning.
Evan: My name is Evan from Rockton, Illinois. What was sung to me as a child, and I still sing them to my kids today, there is an old Lithuanian song that my mom was taught by her dad, and I passed on to my kids. It goes like this-
[singing a Lithuanian lulluby]
Evan -which roughly translates to, "I'm a little boy. Just like a goat liking apple on a tree. All the little girls like little goats so after me go ttt." Obviously, I'm not sure that it got passed down correctly, but that's my story.
Anna: Hi, this is Anna from Stanford, Connecticut. I grew up in Queens, and my mom is Len and she used to sing to me in Spanish. It would go something like-
[singing Arrorró mi niño]
Arrorró mi niña
Arrorró mi amor
Anna: -I can't remember the rest, but that was how it went.
Marissa: Hi, this is Marissa Johnston from Santa Cruz, California. I had a song that my parents used to sing to me.
Lullaby and goodnight little Marissa
Put your head on my shoulder
And sleep through the night
When you wake in the morning
You will see the light
So good night Marissa
So good night and sleep tight.
Marissa: I used to cry every time because I thought they made it up for me and they were saying goodbye to me every night. Thank you.
Natalie: Hi, my name is Natalie calling from Gresham, Oregon. Two of my sons have unfortunately already passed away, and now I find that I can no longer sing the lullaby You Are My Sunshine with the words, "my only sunshine" to my four-year-old, because I feel like it's a heartbreaking betrayal to my other sons. So I've changed the song to, "You are my sunshine, one of my sunshines." In that way, I am remembering all of my children. Thank you.
Elizabeth: This is Elizabeth from St.Petersburg, and yes, my aunt used to sing me lullabies. It's very special to me because when I saw her when she was in hospice, it was the last song she ever sang to me. It goes like this-
[singing Rock-a-bye Baby]
Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
Faye: Hi, I'm Faye [unintelligible 00:19:56] from Alta Loma, California. My favorite lullaby goes like this-
Sing a song of lira
A pocket full of pasta
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a [Italian language]
When the [Italian language] was opened
The birds began to sing
Now, wasn't that a dainty thing
To set before the king?
The king was in the parlor
The queen was in the pantry
The maid was in the garden
Along come a blackbird
And bite up your nose
Faye: The reason why we love that is because it's a symbol for our [unintelligible 00:20:37] family, a hybrid of Sicilian and American culture.
Michael: My name is Michael Goldstein. I'm calling from Boston, Massachusetts. My mum sang to me almost every night a song with words. The melody was Greensleeves and here was her words.
I love my Michael. He's so good
He's such a good, little darling boy
I love my Michael. He's so good
He's such a sweet, little boy
Michael, Michael, I love you
You're such a sweet, little darling boy.
Michael, Michael, I love you
You're such a good, little boy
Michael: She sang that to me almost every night when I went to bed.
Sarah: Hi, my name is Sarah Alexander. I live in Kirkland, Washington. When my son who is now almost nine was a baby I used to sing Loch Lomond to him, which goes,
[singing Loch Lomond]
Ye'll take the high road, and I'll take the low
And I'll be in Scotland afore ye
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
Tanzina: Lullabies can also serve to bring comfort in incredibly difficult moments like the one that our producer Lydia's sister sent us. Just a warning that this call deals with the loss of a child and will hit a lot of us hard, but we felt it was really important to hear.
Lydia's sister: I had my first son in June last year and he was unexpectedly stillborn. My husband asked me to sing a lullaby at his burial. After saying all of our goodbyes and lowering him into the ground I sang this song. It's called Lakota Lullaby and one of the lines means, "My kindhearted boy, go to sleep."
[singing Lakota Lullaby]
Lydia's sister: We named our son Sky. Now, Sky has a little brother who's almost four months old. I sing this song to my son Rio too and I hope that Sky is listening when I do. Sky and Rio may not get to grow up together but I feel some comfort in knowing that at least they have this in common, that their mother sang this lullaby to both of them.
Tanzina: There's really nothing to say that can follow that moment. We just want to thank you for being with us. I'm Tanzina Vega. This is The Takeaway and we'll see you tomorrow.
I love you in the morning
And in the afternoon
I love you in the evening
Underneath the moon, cha, cha
Skidamarink a dink a dink
Skidamarink a doo
I love you. Paru, paruru
I love you [unintelligible 00:23:53].
I love you.
A hug and a kiss
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