If you’re struggling to find good bedtime singing material, Tom Burns offers up five great, nontraditional choices that can definitely work as lullabies for your eye-rubbing children.
When I became a dad, I didn’t realize exactly how much time I’d be spending in a rocking chair, trying to convince my child to give up the fight and finally, FINALLY nod off to sleep. Every parent has their own repertoire of special moves they bring to the bedtime ritual. Some parents rub their kid’s head, others make quiet, reassuring hushing noises. Me? After a week or two in the glider, trying my best to soothe a fussy kid into dreamland, I knew what I wanted to do.
I wanted to sing to her.
I’m not sure where the desire came from, but, sitting there, trying to make my daughter feel as secure and cozy as possible, my urge to sing to her was overwhelming. Which was odd because I am a ridiculously terrible singer. But the impulse was there, nudged along as I watched my wife gorgeously serenade my daughter to sleep every other night. I was probably a little jealous – my wife made singing lullabies look so effortlessly cool, ignoring trite standards like “Mockingbird” and “Twinkle Twinkle”, and, instead, drawing my infant daughter in with beautifully intimate covers of everything from “Leaving on a Jet Plane” to “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog.”
I wanted that same experience, but I didn’t have confidence in my ability to pull off a Joni Mitchell or Peter, Paul, and Mary tune. I am a geeky, indoor-kid dad. I needed to find some songs with lullaby potential that could fit nicely into my “awkward parent” wheelhouse. Songs I knew backwards and forwards, songs that I could sing over and over again to a sleeping bundle in my arms, songs that I didn’t hate, and songs that – while they didn’t have to be saccharine – definitely had to have some sweetness in there somewhere. (Hyperlinks in song title take you to youtube video.)
That’s right – the cowboy lullaby from The Three Amigos, one of my favorite, underrated, gloriously silly comedies from the ‘80s. While your memory of the movie might linger on the Steve Martin non-sequiturs and getting kissed “on the veranda,” the scene where Steve Martin and Chevy Chase sing a nervous Martin Short to sleep beneath the darkening desert sky is one of the film’s absurdist highlights. “Blue Shadows” is an earnest throwback to old cowboy songs, beautifully brought to life by its lyricist, Randy Newman. Plus the song just makes me smile, particularly when the horses join in. (And if your kid’s name is “Ned” – bonus.)
This lovely little ditty was one of Groucho Marx’s favorite numbers and it’s accumulated a lot of pop culture cache since Groucho first sang it in 1939’s At the Circus. I first became acquainted with “Lydia” thanks to Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show and I fell in love with it when a homeless Robin Williams serenaded Amanda Plummer with it in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. It’s a sweet, rollicking tune, almost like a sea shanty, which delights in wordplay, as the narrator receives a history lesson from Lydia’s menagerie of tattoos. How can you not love lyrics like “When her muscles start relaxin’ / up the hill comes Andrew Jackson”? It’s perfect for lulling a kid to sleep (and teaching them about the Wreck of the Hesperus too).
In my experience, ANY good lullaby has to a). have a killer chorus and b). be the kind of song that just demands to be sung again and again and again. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that I quickly embraced Irish pub songs as lullaby fodder for my kid – songs that, by their very nature, are so catchy that they can inspire an enormous crowd to croon them over and over, even if… how can I put this… the crowd itself is a “wee bit” impaired. However, finding a pub song with the right tempo is important. I rotated towards more mainstream, folky favorites such as “Wild Rover” and “Black Velvet Band” and generally stated away from some of the more lyrically (and rhythmically) complex tunes like “The Rocky Road to Dublin.” Yes, the lyrical content might sometimes cover drinking, death, and other Irish “Troubles”, but the songs themselves are usually bright, brilliant, and so bloody sing-able that you can embark into your fourth rendition of “Wild Rover” while rocking your kid to sleep and still have enough energy to eventually head downstairs and start in on the laundry. (Plus your kid will probably be the only one in kindergarten who knows what “Van Diemen’s Land” is, which will be super-impressive.)
4. “Still Alive” by Jonathan Coulton
OK, some people might argue that a ballad about a vindictive artificial intelligence program passive-aggressive gloating that its test subject wasn’t able to burn it to death MIGHT not be an ideal bedtime song for a baby. And those people a). have no vision and b). would be wrong. Jonathan Coulton’s “Still Alive” – created for Valve’s Portal – is widely regarded as the best video game closing credits songs of all time. If that seems like a very specific distinction to you, think about this – the song is SO GOOD that it inspired people to actually start ranking the quality of video game closing credits songs. (If that’s not a sign of quality, I don’t know what is.) Even if you’re not a video game fan, “Still Alive” is still a great song. It’s this lovely little ode to persistence that’s just dripping with humanity – even if it was written for a computer program – and the recurring use of the phrase “still alive” makes for an oddly affecting and reassuring chorus that, personally, I loved singing to a sleeping infant. If you want to give your kid some pre-K geek cred, this might be the lullaby for you.
5. “Kiss Me, Son of God” by They Might Be Giants
They Might Be Giants, one of the most enduring bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s, have forever cemented their place in my music collection by consistently releasing amazing albums targeted at two very separate, yet interconnected audiences – i.e. me and my kid. Thanks to records like “NO!” and “Here Come the ABCs”, TMBG has become one of the most unlikely pillars of the “kids’ music that parents don’t hate” industry. And, yet, with all of their kid-friendly options, why did I sing “Kiss Me, Son of God” – the last track off their 1988 release “Lincoln” – to my daughter over and over again? Nostalgia definitely played a part, but it was mostly because TMBG are experts at creating melodiously sing-able tunes with a deceptive amount of bite lurking beneath the surface. Despite the title, “Kiss Me, Son of God” has nothing to do with religion. It’s more about pomposity and ego, the kind of ego that once drove bands to proclaim they were “bigger than Jesus.” This quiet little number is equal parts perceptive and funny, which makes it a lot of fun to sing to a cranky infant who won’t go down. Because what’s more fun – singing “Hush Little Baby” over and over again or looking an infant in the eyes and, as sweet as can be, singing, “Now you’re the only one here who can tell me if it’s true / that you love me and I love me”? The choice seems obvious.
Those are five non-canonical lullaby candidates that worked great for my daughter, but I’d love to hear more options. Did you have an atypical favorite that delighted your kid? Did your baby love Marvin Gaye tunes? Did your six-month-old adore your rendition of System of a Down’s “Chop Suey”? Share your favorite non-traditional lullabies below.