Here are collected a group of English lullabies well known to my mother and aunt in the earlier decades of the 1900s, though to my knowledge only three of the seven were published in song collections of the twentieth century. The lullaby tunes and words were passed on to me by them with the suggestion that I might “make something of them.” Subsequently, I transcribed the melodies and added my own accompaniments composed for guitar.
My aunt had sung these lullabies to her twelve-year younger sister as a comforting routine as she endured a prolonged period of illness when a young child in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Though some of the pages of the lullabies’ written-out lyrics are dated “Feb. 2nd /17”, it was many years later that my mother prevailed upon her older sister to pass these words on to her before they might be forgotten. Copies of some of the lyrics appear here in my aunt’s distinctive hand. Later still, my mother sang and roughly recorded the lullabies in order that I might notate the melodies.
The original tunes and words of five of the seven lullabies are anonymous; the guitar accompaniments to all are my own. I subsequently identified “The New moon” as music probably by H. P. Sawyer with words by a Mrs. Follen, and “The Slumber boat” as music by Jessie L. Gaynor with words by Alice C. D. Riley. Two versions of the same lullaby are included: “Baby’s boat” is my arrangement of that passed down to me, while “The Slumber boat” is a published version (Clayton F. Summy Co., c1898) in which I have replaced Jessie L. Gaynor’s keyboard accompaniment with my transcription of it for guitar. “Cradle song,” unlike the previous six in this collection, appears in a few different versions in several twentieth-century song collections. Also known as “Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf,” the “German lullaby” is included on page 37 in Dorothy Berliner Commins Lullabies of many lands (London: Harper & Brothers, 1941). She notes there that “this lullaby goes back to the very roots of the German people.”
Excepting the well-known “Cradle song”, the six other lullabies may be considered relatively obscure, especially considering that when searched previously, only two were found to have been published. Since then, it is likely that other iterations of these words and tunes have or will be identified. It may be surmised that when she was growing up in England, Edna Wright memorised both the words and melodies to the lullabies by rote, possibly from a publication or from her parents or relatives. Later, not wanting to rely entirely on her memory, she wrote down the words, while expecting to easily recall the melodies without the musical notation. This probable scenario points up what appears to be a prime example of music passed on through generations by aural transmission.
The accompaniments to the lullabies were composed primarily to satisfy a wish of my mother’s. While I hope that they may help to enhance the simple nature of both words and melodies, it is apparent that a more definitive rendition of them is their unaccompanied singing by a parent or grandparent at a child’s bedside.
Peter A. Higham, Librarian Emeritus
November 2020; March 2021