Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews       entry Nov 2015


When the Bough Breaks...
 - or Rock-a-by...AAAGGGHHH!!!

First, thanks to correspondent, Joe Bove, who wrote me about a "Neapolitan lullaby": "My grandmother used to sing it to my mother and she in turn sang it to her children and grandchildren...Was wondering if you might... be able to shed some light on the background of the song. It hardly has lyrics that one would think were suitable for a lullaby, since the only line I know refers to a sheep being eaten by a wolf!"

Indeed, there are a lot of lullabies like that. You wouldn't think that it would very soothing to sing an infant to sleep by crooning about babies crashing down to earth from a tree-top through broken boughs, down to broken limbs and even death, but we do. What's going on?!

Before I forget, for future reference, the European commission has created a project called Lullabies of Europe. There is a collection of lullabies in seven European languages (English, Czech, Danish, Italian, Romanian, Greek and Turkish at this external link.)

Lullabies, nursery rhymes and fairy-tales are, in one sense, very similar; they are for children, but if you think about it, there is more to it than that. Nursery rhymes and fairy-tales, whether traditional or modern, are meant to instruct or entertain; they are aimed at children who understand language at that level: instruction, entertainment, and "language games." Such rhymes and tales are interactive, often involving participation by children — movement, repetition, singing, counting, etc. — even in fairy tales, where children often contribute comments to move the story along. Lullabies are different. The soothing rocking motion, the sound of the mother's voice, the melody, itself, have all been shown to calm infants, lower their blood pressure and calm their breathing; as opposed to encouraging active participation, the goal is to put the little darlings to sleep. But besides that, what else does a lullaby do? It instructs at a very basic level. This is a period in life when language (and musical) acculturation begin; you hear in lullabies the sounds, rhythms, and intonations of your own language. And when you're awake, all that sound springs to life as the beginnings of language and you start to babble (to try out the voice, so to speak) and sooner or later you get off a full-fledged repetition of a real word, and then a short utterance (maybe "...want car keys!"). And you're off, running and ready for life. So lullabies, while not as obviously active as a nursery rhyme or fairy tale, are an important part of what comes later.

We're still missing something, though, as indicated in the title of this article. What is the point of singing a child to sleep with songs of falling from trees, being snatched by monsters, abandoned, given to strangers, torn to pieces by eagles, and dragged into the woods to be eaten by wolves? All of these themes crop up in some form or another in lullabies that mothers sing to their infant children around the world, if they are traditional lullabies. Here it's a good idea to make a distinction, one between traditional lullabies and composed ones. Not all of the composed lullabies are modern, either. Warner (2011) reminds us that,
The importance of nan-songs [lullabies] was acknowledged as early as the fifteenth century, when the Neapolitan humanist Giovanni Pontano dedicated a book of lullabies to his son with the words:'Neniae Luciolum verbaque ficta iuvant (Lullabies and fantastic stories delight little Lucius).
Pontano's composed Latin lullabies are of the "sweet dreams" variety, as sweet and uncontroversial as the "Baby Mine" lullaby from Walt Disney's Dumbo (1941). Thus, composed lullabies, published and meant to be sung by good mommies to good babies, are almost always benevolent. The most famous example in Europe is by Johannes Brahms, op. 49-4, commonly known as Brahms' Lullaby and first performed in 1869. The first verse is so beautiful that you, yourself, will nod off before reaching the second verse:
Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht,/ mit Rosen bedacht,/
mit Näglein besteckt,/ schlupf unter die Deck:/
Morgen früh, wenn Gott will
/ wirst du wieder geweckt.

The common English version is equally soothing:

Lullaby and good night,/With roses bedight,/With lilies o'er spread/Is baby's wee bed./
Lay thee down now and rest/May thy slumber be blessed.

Thus, literate, sophisticated adults even centuries ago seem to have bought into the idea that lullabies must inevitably be sweet. How could it be otherwise? That does have a certain common sense to it, if you ignore the obvious exceptions. The anonymous hand-me-down "scary" lullabies from long ago make us pause to echo the words of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who said, “Spain possesses joyous songs, jokes, jests … Why then has Spain reserved the most potent songs of blood to lull its children to sleep, those least suited to their delicate sensibilities?” The English Rock-a-by Baby, is not nearly as bad as others, but for the record, the first printed version of that lullaby appeared in Mother Goose's Melody (London, c. 1765). It has these lyrics:

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

 
In Italy there are many variations of one of the most famous lullabies, but they all start the same way:

Ninna nanna, ninna oh,/ questo bimbo a chi lo do? [Lullaby, lullaby - who shall I give this child to?]

Depending on the version, you give the infant to a Dark Man, the Befana, or any number of other personages each of whom keeps the infant for different periods of time. Even though some of the versions have happy endings (the Wise Folletto, for example will make the infant into a Uomo perfetto, [perfect man]) the lullaby is essentially about abandoning your child.

The Neapolitan melody referred to in the first paragraph is called O Lupo e 'a Pecurella (The Wolf and the Little Lamb) and cited as an "Ancient Parthenopean Ninna-Nanna (Parthenopean is the traditional term for Neapolitan, from the original name of Naples, Parthenope.) As the letter-writer says, it has to do with a lamb being eaten by a wolf. All of the versions are variations of (in Neapolitan):

'O lupo s'ha magnata'a pecurella!/e pecurella mia comme faciste/
Quanne mmocc'a lu lupo te vediste?/e pecurella mia comme farraie/
Quanne mmocc'a lu lupo te vedarraie?

[The wolf ate the little lamb/
my little lamb, what did you do
in the jaws of the wolf?/
And my little lamb/
What will you do in the jaws of the wolf?]


So, there are countless lullabies about death, despair and loss. I asked earlier, What's going on? Is the text directed at the infant? Clearly not. Whom else could it be directed at? The woman, herself? Possibly, but anthropology offers another explanation. Many people who have written about lullabies say that this type of lullaby has what is called an "apotropaic function"); that is, it is like a charm; it has the power to ward off evil. The mother can be alone with her infant and express her worst fears and even intone them (like a chant
that is, a prayer put to song), not to the infant, but to the dark forces "out there" that have persisted over millennia of human culture; in so expressing her fears, she confronts them and possibly gains some control over them, just by confronting them. Beyond what they call "apotropaic magic"* there might be something much more down to earth at work. One, in areas where another mouth to feed is not necessarily a blessing, it might just be a long-suffering mother complaining about her lot in life. Two, field collectors of folk music such as Alan Lomax (1915-2002) remind us that lullabies are not sung to infants only by their mothers, but by grandmothers, sisters, wet-nurses, and caregivers who might be lamenting that they are unable to care for their own babies because they are forced to work for others. An American lullaby called Hush a-bye includes this verse:

    Over yonder In the meadow
    A poor little lambie crying Mama
    Bees and butterflies Flutter 'round its eyes
    The poor little lambie crying Mama.

The whole lullaby, here sung by a black slave caregiver to a white plantation owner's infant, is about life, death, separation and violence.
There is an additional factor, and this is very understudied: some see a difference in "severity of disaster" as you move from one part of a country to another, Italy here being the case in point; that is to say that the calamities that might befall an infant get worse as you move from north to south, just because of poverty.

If that's not enough, consider that there are cultures in which men also sing lullabies, and you don't get much scarier than that!  That's enough for tonight. Please go to sleep.

*apotropaic magic: other entries having to do with apotropaic magic, good and bad luck, and various local rituals used to ward off evil are here, here, and here.

sources and acknowledgements:

- Lomax, Alan (1955). L'Anno piu' felice della mia vita (The Happiest Year of My Life), a book of ethnographic photos by Alan Lomax from his 1954-55 fieldwork in Italy, edited by Goffredo Plastino, preface by Martin Scorsese. Milano: Il Saggiatore, M2008.
- Marder, Jenny (2014)
Why are so many lullabies also murder ballads? - at PBS News Hour Science.  
- Saffioto, Tito (2013). Le Ninne Nanne Italiane. New edition. Nardò (Lecce), Besa, 2013.
- Warner, Marina (1998) "Hush-a-bye baby: Death and violence in the lullaby" in Raritan 18.1 (Summer 1998): 93-114. Rutgers University Press, Rutgers, NJ.
- Warner, Marina (2011). "No Go the Bogeyman." Random House, New York.
- Thanks to Selene Salvi for providing me with the text of
Le Ninne Nanne Italiane (Saffioto 2013).
-
Thanks to professor Warren Johnson for reminding me of Alan Lomax and providing me Hush a-bye... .
- Thanks to Joe Bove for the letter that started all this.
- Thanks to professor Richard Kidder for directing me to the website of the Alan Lomax Association for Cultural Equity.

 


© 2002 to 2018