New lullabies from old traditions.
This afternoon I removed the winter cover from our garden bench and sat in the warm sunshine to write this column. With fresh green leaves unfurling on the clematis, early daffodils nodding delicately and the woods behind our house teeming with birdsong, I settled down to ponder this week’s subject.
Having read recently of how some birds sing in a special way to embryo chicks in the egg (and hatchlings), imparting information to their young about the world outside, and which also affects development, growth, vocalization and later adult behaviour, I couldn’t help likening it to a wonderful music project I’m privileged to be currently involved with.
Amid increasingly worrying headlines around the Coronavirus, if anything can lift our hearts it is nature and the sense that the cycle of life continues. In that spirit, I’d like to share with you a flavour of this project, at the core of which is nurturing our young ones with song.
Tàlaidhean Ùra (New Lullabies) is run by Fèis Rois (in partnership with New York’s Carnegie Hall and Aberdeen University), working with new mums to write and sing lullabies for their children. Aims include to strengthen bonds between mothers and babies, support maternal health, aid child development, foster a sense of community connectedness, alleviate isolation and of course to have a personal lullaby at the end of it to sing to their little one.
The first group having started in January in Alness, we’re now nearing the end of our twelve-week block and what a heart-warming experience! As one of the musician facilitators, it’s been a joy to be part of a project so positive in every aspect and see our mums enjoy the relaxed, fun atmosphere while their babies are looked after in the same room, get to know each other over cups of tea and crafting, and blossom in confidence in singing and expressing their ideas in shaping lyrics and melody.
Lullabies have a long and varied history around the world, many handed down over hundreds of years. As well as expressing love for our children, and hoping our gentle song will soothe them to sleep, lullabies are deceptively rich in content - what Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project handbook describes as the “magic inside these little sleepy-time songs”.
Using rhyme and rhythm to create the regular singsong, swaying feel for a lulling quality, language play including the kind of nonsense syllables, alliteration and repetition that babies adore, lullabies help them recognise and learn language while drifting off to sleep, feeling safe, protected and loved. They tell a child about their world and the community they will grow up in, with lullabies from different cultures fostering a sense of identity by including cultural traditions, family, foods, animals, countryside, fables and stories.
In Scotland we have rich Gaelic and Scots traditions, including melancholy lullabies, not unlike laments, sung to plaintive but beautiful melodies, telling of lost loves, battles, heroism, the sorrows of womanhood, the singing of which would no doubt have been cathartic, enabling women emotional space to express sad, wistful feelings.
Today, that precious quiet time when we put our babies to bed allows parents a moment to breathe also. Singing short, comfortable phrases and the sighing breathy quality of a lullaby’s simple melody enable parents themselves to slow down and feel calmer.
All of this might sound obvious, particularly to an older generation for whom crooning lullabies to their babies was probably second nature, but these days it seems many children are not just being read a bedtime story by Alexa, the voice of technology, but ‘Baby Lullaby for Alexa’ is also increasingly in use.
Babies can’t, and shouldn’t, bond with a ‘smart speaker’, will not feel warmth or be cradled by Alexa, and will not feel connectedness or part of a community through an electronic voice. We should not let ourselves sleepwalk into this emotional void or soon we won’t even remember what we’ve lost.
First published by Scottish Provincial Press 10th March 2020)