Singing to Babies (and Kids)


Our new arrival, Matthew, is going on a month old, and he’s learning a lot about the world. One of the things he’s learning is that when Papa holds him, it’s not delicious like with Mama — but Papa sings songs, which seems to interest him. Suz says that when he’s not hungry he seems to prefer to be held by Papa, which may have as much to do with my patented rocking hold technique as my crooning, but I like to think the crooning helps too.

I’ve always sung songs to all our kids. We sing hymns every evening with prayers, and occasionally I sing religious songs, but for the most part my eclectic repertoire centers on folk, work songs, lullabies and songs for children.

When I was a kid I listened all the time to a collection of folk songs for children written by Woody Guthrie (thanks to reader StephC for correctly calling out Woody Guthrie Children’s Songs by Bob & Louise DeCormier; you can also hear Woody’s and Arlo’s versions of many of the songs here and here). A number of those songs are staples in our household, like “Bling Blang,” which refers to the ringing of a hammer, not tacky jewelry. The versions I grew up with seem not to be online in their totality, but I kind of like this Johnny Cash cover

You get a hammer and I'll get a nail
And you catch a bird and I'll catch a snail
You bring a board and I'll bring a saw
And we'll build a house for the baby-o

Bling blang, hammer with my hammer
Zingo zango, cutting with my saw
Bling blang, hammer with my hammer
Zingo zango, cutting with my saw

Other staples from that album include “Mail Myself to You” (here’s a Pete Seegar version), “Race You Down the Mountain” (“Magic Garden” rendition) and “Little Seed” (which I can’t find online in full, but you can hear excerpts here and here).

Some of my songs might raise some eyebrows for their somewhat dark content. Of course babies don’t understand the words, but I keep right on singing the songs as they get older (partially because the babies keep coming). One of my favorites is Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon,” about coal mining in the Appalachians, which I learned more or less as performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (it was also perfomed by Johnny Cash in his Folsom prison album; here’s a Gordon Lightfoot cover): 

Now listen you fellers, so young and so fine,
And seek not your fortune in the dark dreary mines.
For it’ll form as a habit and seep into your soul,
'Till the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal.

Where it's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where the danger is double and the pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.

My favorite verse is the last, which I sing softly and slowly.

Oh, I hope when I'm dead and the ages do roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I'll look down below from my heavenly home
And pity the miner a-diggin' my bones…

Where it's dark as a dungeon…

Somewhat similar in mood, though very different in feel, is “Drill, Ye Tarriers,” a work song about Irish workers drilling and blasting through rock for a railroad. The version I learned goes like this (this version is pretty close):

Every morning at seven o'clock
There's twenty tarriers a-workin' at the rock
And the boss comes along and he says keep still
And come down heavy on the cast iron drill

So drill, ye tarriers, drill…and drill, ye tarriers, drill
Oh it's work all day for the sugar in your tay
Down behind the railway
And drill, ye tarriers, drill…

(If you sing it with an Irish accent, it’s clear that “sugar in your tay” is “sugar in your tea.” By the same token, “tarrier” may be an accented form of “terrier,” comparing the workers to terriers digging out prey.)

The next two verses go on to expound on the epic stinginess of the new foreman, Dan McCann: After a “premature blast” sends a worker named Jim Goff a mile in the air, McCann docks Goff’s pay a dollar “for the time you were up in the sky”!

One of the things I most like to sing is a fragment of a song: just four lines of the chorus of a tune I first heard on the radio, and only years later learned was written by Lyle Lovett. The song is “If I Had a Boat,” and the words of the chorus are one of the niftiest bits of lyric writing I’ve ever heard. Here is how it starts:

If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony…

I like to pause here a moment, because this is where Lovett’s brilliantly askew sensibilities come in. Convention leads you to expect a sort of analogous parallelism, so that the line should end, for example, “…I’d ride out on the range,” or something of the sort. Instead, Lovett unexpectedly deploys synthetic parallelism:

…I’d ride him on my boat
And we would all together go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat.

Ha! That cracks me up. “If I had a pony, I’d ride him on my boat.” Of course you would! Who wouldn’t? What could be better than that?

There’s more to the song than the chorus, and I know some folks are fans of the verse about Tonto, but for my money the chorus is just perfect and the verses add nothing, so I only sing the chorus (anyway, there are limits to what I’ll sing to kids). It’s short, but I work variations and ad libs, and it holds up.

Another nifty bit of writing about riding a horse is “A Cowboy Needs a Horse,” which I learned from the delightful 1956 Disney short by that title, but which was apparently written by Donny Osmond.

Oh, a cowboy needs a horse, needs a horse, needs a horse
And he's gotta have a rope, have a rope, have a rope
And he oughta have a song, have a song, have a song
If he wants to keep ridin'

Now a cowboy needs a hat, needs a hat, needs a hat
And a pair of fancy boots, fancy boots, fancy boots
And a set of shiny spurs, shiny spurs, shiny spurs
If he wants to keep ridin'

Oh, the fence is long and the sun is hot
And the good Lord knows that a cowboy's gotta
Keep ridin', ridin' along…

Oh, and speaking of songs from movies, there’s the song from Babe, “If I Had Words” (or “Moonshine” as we call it), written by Yvonne Keeley and Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve often sung this as a lullabye. The lyrics James Cromwell sings are somewhat different from the ones the mice sing over the end credits, but apparently the version I picked is very close to the original:

If I had words to make a day for you
I’d sing you a morning golden and new. 
I would make this day last for all time
Give you a night deep in moonshine.

And speaking of lullabies from movies, the most famous of them all was popularized by Bing Crosby in the quintessential Golden Age Catholic movie, Going My Way, i.e., “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral”:

Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Hush now don't you cry!
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, That's an Irish lullaby.

I actually learned that one not from the movie, but from my mother who sang it to me.

That’s more than enough to give you a sense of my predilections in singing for children…How about you? Those of you with kids, do you sing to them? What are your favorites? Please post your songs (with Internet links if you can find them) in the combox at

Babies, Personal