Marco Werman: Finally today, a musical spin on our series about pregnancy and childbirth. New parents everywhere face a common problem: getting their babies to sleep. And there's a universal solution: the lullaby: Author Kathy Henderson collected lullabies from across the globe for her children's book Hush, Baby, Hush. She took the title from a Jamaican song that we'll hear in a moment. Henderson explains that lullabies don't just help babies relax.
Kathy Henderson: This is a vehicle with which the desperate or frustrated carer, parent, guardian, whoever it is, can actually deal with a situation in which they are being wound up by a child or they are failing to get them to sleep or they are feeling really, really tired themselves. And so they work as a two-way safety valve.
Werman: Let's talk a bit more about that in a second but first I want our listeners to hear a recording of "Hush, Baby, Hush" from Jamaica.
[Recording of Hush, Baby, Hush]
Werman: Tell me, what makes a great lullaby? There's got to be, it would seem, an equal balance between melody and lyrics.
Henderson: Absolutely. They're inseparable and their musical form is almost always a very narrow notational range and a soothing rhythm. What interests me about them is how various they are. Many lovely lullabies is "it's alright, everything is alright with the world," but there are equally lullabies about every human mood.
Werman: Let's listen to a lullaby from Turkey now. This is called "Dandini Dan." Tell me a bit about it before we hear it.
Henderson: Dandini Dan is a lullaby that I think most people in Turkey probably know a verse of. The verse says "the calves have got into the garden. The gardener quickly must go and chase them out again before they eat the cabbages."
[Recording of Dandini Dan]
Werman: Sounds like a few people in the room were learning it and one person knew it pretty well. Of course, these are passed down from generation to generation, aren't they?
Henderson: Yes, I think what we heard there was that she was obviously asked if she knew a lullaby. She started off and then though "oh, hang on, I don't know the words here." The other women came in and went "no, of course you do. Here they are."
Werman: We have one more lullaby to go out on, Kathy. This one is from South Africa, it's called "Railway." I would guess a double whammy of soporific music. You've got the lullaby form and then the rocking feel of a train. What is the story behind "Railway"?
Henderson: This is a very good example of how lullabies work as a form of relief for the adults singing. The words are the mother's lament, saying "the railway is driving me crazy because it's taking my children's father away from me." This is because the men only came home once a year and the rest of the time they worked in the cities and the women were left behind on the homelands in the Apartheid zones. This is a woman who is discharging her own sorrows in a form which soothes her children to sleep and here is the daughter, now an adult, singing to us what she remembers of her mother's song.
[Recording of Railway]
Werman: Kathy Henderson, author of the book Hush, Baby, Hush. Thanks to The Kitchen Sisters and the BBC's Nick Thorpe for their recording of lullabies. Your turn now. We want you to share your favorite lullabies, maybe one that's been passed down in your own family. Go to our special webpage, that's PRI.org/lullabies. You can upload a recording or just sing into your phone or computer, and while you're there, check out lullabies others have shared from around the world. From our studios at WGBH in Boston, I'm Marco Werman, sleep tight.