baby reading the history of a lullaby

Rock-a-bye-Baby is one of the best-known lullabies in the English language. It has a lovely soothing melody. However, the lyrics always confused me a little bit. There are several different versions of the lyrics. Let me remind you of the most common full version:

Rock-a-bye Baby

Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree tops,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Baby is drowsing, cozy and fair
Mother sits near in her rocking chair
Forward and back, the cradle she swings
Though baby sleeps, he hears what she sings

Rock-a-bye baby, do not you fear
Never mind, baby, mother is near
Wee little fingers, eyes are shut tight
Now sound asleep - until morning light

Do you see my problem? I can handle somehow cradle on the treetops. But, falling down with the baby and all! And what happened? I guess it landed safely, but probably because thinking of any other way would be horrible. There is a version where the mother saves the day and catches everything, though. Still, where does all the drama comes from?

Origins

Maybe, we can figure it out if we go back in time. There might be a known story behind the lyrics we know.

Alas, no one knows how old is the song, or who wrote it. The first printed version appeared in Mother Goose’s Melody in London, 1765. In 1785 it was published in Boston. The original version ‘Hush-a-bye baby’ was modified to a ‘Rock-a-bye baby’. The melody of the rhyme is a modified version of ‘Lilliburlero’ satirical ballad from the 17th century. Those are the facts. There are a couple of theories, though.

The Colonist

One of the oldest theories says that it was the first English poem written on American soil. Native American women carried their babies in birch bark cradle boards. Occasionally, they would hang the cradle on the tree branches and wind would rock the baby to sleep. An unknown English colonist observed it and wrote the poem. It can’t be proved but there are records from the late 19th and early 20th century to support it. It does sound plausible, though.

Sly Dig at the King

Some experts think that it might be a political allegory from the 17th century! It is not as crazy as it looks. Lilliburlero tune depicted events leading to overthrow of James II, the last Roman Catholic king of England, Ireland, and Scotland. It was rumored that James smuggled someone else’s child as his own in order to provide an heir. Finally, he was deposed and exiled in a series of events called the Glorious Revolution.

The Lilliburlero tune connects our lullaby with dramatic events of 1688. The “wind” is the Protestant “wind” and William of Orange who would take over the throne. “The Cradle” is the royal House of Stewart. While this looks like quite a stretch, it is not impossible. The first printed version from 1765 goes with a footnote, ”This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last”. Well, the footnote seems to support political background.

Betty Kenny Tree

Another theory is a local legend in Derbyshire, England. In the late 18th century Betty Kenny lived in the movable hut in the woods with her husband and 8 children. They were charcoal burners for the local landlord. Often, they dwelled around the giant yew tree. These are historical facts. The legend has it that Betty used a hollowed-out bough as a cradle. And it inspired the song. The remnants of the yew tree can still be seen in Shining Cliff Woods.

baby sleeping after hearing a lullaby

Conclusion

Whatever the truth about its origin, the lullaby gained tremendous popularity. Adapted versions exist in many languages around the world.

There’s something about lullabies and nursery rhymes that soothes and enchants even the grown-ups. Apart from being pleasant, lullabies are beneficial to your baby. And I am not talking about turning your baby into a genius with ‘Mozart Effect’. The 1993 study that found out that students performed better after listening to Mozart’s music, didn’t even test the babies! And later studies showed that any music that you like will have the same 15-minute boost effect.

No, lullabies won’t make your kids smarter, but it is helpful. Scientific evidence shows that singing a lullaby to a baby helps the bonding, stimulates language and helps to establish a routine.

As for Rock-a-bye Baby song lyrics, some mystery will remain. It might have different explanations and meanings, but I know the one that is beyond doubt: It is time to sleep.