Love songs and lullabies (and some old films)

Different sorts of psalm

The psalm for Thirtieth Sunday in Year A is a love song; the psalm for Thirtyfirst Sunday Year A is a lullaby. I have been thinking about the similarities, and then I came across a reference by Sally Emerson to lullabies as ‘love songs to babies’, so it’s not just me, and I decided to explore the idea.  All lullabies are love songs, but not all love songs are lullabies.

I’ve said before that the Book of Psalms is a book of infinite riches, so it’s not surprising that we find both love songs and lullabies there. There are lots of different sorts of love songs: bellicose, triumphant, wistful, relieved, celebratory. Most of the Hurrah for God psalms are different sorts of love songs. Lullabies in the Psalms are rarer (mostly male poets, perhaps?).  Psalm 130/131 is perhaps the best example of psalm words clearly needing a lullaby setting, picking up the central image of the sleepy child, but there are others.  And now the Pope too has admitted that he sometimes drops off to sleep while in God’s arms, which I am delighted to hear.  The US version of Psalm 18 for 30 OTA gave me enough room to allow a lullaby setting, whereas the UK/OZ version (Ps 17) seems more wakeful, even fierce, runs the words into longer verses and does not have the restful feel, so I had to handle it differently.  But for 31 OTA, everybody needs a lullaby.

Characteristics of lullabies

So what makes a lullaby a lullaby?  Usually but not always in 3/4 time, sometimes 6/8, they mustn’t go too fast, and it’s clear when you sing them that this is because it gives a rocking movement, either just mentally or to the real baby in your arms. (The surprising thing about the Rocking Carol ‘Little Jesus, sweetly sleep’ (Hajej, nynej) is how jerky it is; it’s in 4/4, and I’m always reminded of small children trying to rock dollies and not quite getting it right! As a children’s carol, that’s probably a useful association.)  But you can get away with 4/4 if you sing it sufficiently fast and smoothly to be beating one in a bar (Sleep baby sleep, Coventry carol).

Some golden oldies

Most classic lullabies are 3/4; Golden slumbers (not the Beatles version, the lovely tune recycled by John Gay in the Beggar’s Opera), Sweet and Low, Brahms’ Cradle song, Feed the birds in Mary Poppins, Hushabye Mountain in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  It was very difficult to find acceptable versions of these to link to (you should have heard the ones I left out), but there’s vast amounts of stuff on YouTube, although the best lullabies are the ones you sing yourself.  To go back to films, the worst indictment of Mr Brown in Nanny McPhee is not just that he’s stopped reading stories to the children, they aren’t getting lullabies either (even if they are, oddly, pronouncing it loolaby).

Lost lullabies

But of course the ones we know about are only the tip of the iceberg as most lullabies in the world probably aren’t written down.  This tends to be (certainly traditionally has been) women’s words and music, and so, ephemeral and transmitted by oral tradition, rather than by book.  So any generalisations are tentative, but I think the 3/4 rocking movement is a fairly safe one (though having said that, I keep thinking of 4/4s.  Never mind.)

Purpose of lullabies

What are lullabies for?  They are to encourage your beloved child to go to sleep.  So they need to be steady, reassuring, comfortable and soothing; not exciting, not sudden, not musically athletic, not scary (don’t sing ‘I’m going on a bear hunt’ as a lullaby).  Your aim is a gentle boring to sleep.   (It took us a while to work this out, as it’s very engaging to have an awake baby even in the night, but once we had missed enough sleep, we went for boredom rather than entertainment, and it was a breakthrough.)

This is the feel you are aiming at, but it’s one of those musical paradoxes, like writing a tune for Chaos (Hadyn’s Creation), infinite space (Holst’s Planets), heaven and the Beatific Vision (Elgar’s Gerontius, Palestrina Sicut cervus).  You know you can’t do it, but you try.  I’m sure even geniuses as above quailed at the challenge, whereas for a simple tune writer……The music I’m offering is trying to express peace, and moving towards silence and stillness.

Lullaby or sea shanty

This is difficult, especially in a Responsorial Psalm format, with the chorus coming back in again repeatedly.  Lullabies don’t usually have choruses, for obvious reasons, but they do use repetition.  The tune matters, but it can’t be showy or too upbeat; a little bit fey, modal or folky seems to work.  Lullabies are by their nature unaccompanied, so again, not much on the instrument front.  You need to be able to sing them almost under your breath, let them tail away, fade to nothing as the eyelashes close…….but pick up again gently if needed.

Words for lullabies, good and bad

The tune is important, not so much the melody for once but the movement of it; the words are not so important (you have to be able to fade to a hum).  I have the psalm words as a given, so I don’t need to worry about the words, but it’s fun to read traditional lullaby words from different cultures.

So long as the tune is steady, an aggravated parent can let off steam with the words (and if you are really sleep-deprived, and garble or forget them, it doesn’t matter).  Rock a bye baby is a fine traditional example of this, with total catastrophe at the end tied to a serene tune, although there are modern bowdlerised versions.   There’s another one, Go to sleep you little baby, in O Brother, where art thou?   One I like is Icelandic, I think, and the letting off steam line is ‘Sleep, you black-eyed pig.  Fall into a pit full of ghosts.’  Now there’s a singer longing for oblivion and just marking time till she gets there.  Thomas Hood wrote his Serenade for a father in precisely this situation, and it contains the line, ‘The more I sing, the more you wake’,  which is precisely not what we want here.

Setting a lullaby psalm : practical considerations

We can’t have the congregation nodding off during the readings,  so I am not trying for a real lullaby here, just something suggestive of it.  Luckily it’s a clear and understood brand.  I was amazed to discover how many pop songs are based on lullabies, and that is one reason why it was so difficult to find clips for my earlier references.

Psalm 130/131 is short and irregular, with a final half-verse.  I couldn’t go for 3/4 in the UK version because of the rhythm of the Response words, so I was aiming more for a Tallis feel there, a simple metrical psalm with a stepping bass;  and the half-verse fitted smoothly into the second half of the verse tune, so that worked.  The OZ/CAN version had a gentle rock, with a long wait on the note for peace which I deliberately left as simple and calm as possible.  I could streamline the tune around the half-verse using all four lines but more simply, as though it was easing away.  The US version was tricky, because the words are a bit Yoda, except for the Response, which has the same beautiful words as the OZ/CAN version, but a different tune.  This time the half-verse fitted into the first and last lines, so I ended up doing it differently for each group, but each version keeps it clear for the congregation, which is my main concern.

Responsorial psalm as a lullaby

So if you don’t want the congregation to go to sleep, why set the psalm as a lullaby?  Especially for Psalm 130/131, the words are so strongly suggestive that it seems the only sort of tune to write.  Nobody sings you lullabies any more once you get big, but everyone remembers the feeling of being totally safe and close to the person you love most, and being able to let go.  I hope the congregation won’t go to sleep, but I hope they will feel calm, rested and peaceful; like a weaned child on its mother’s breast (or lap, for the US) indeed.  It is hard to think of a more peaceful image of us and God.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.