Sing me a Lullaby

Why is that lullabies have such enormous power to soothe?  I have sung lullabies to my children since they were tiny babies and it is such a special time, just before sleep, all warm and quiet and cuddled up.  I remember my grandmother singing this one:

Go to sleep my baby
Close your pretty eyes
Angels round about you
Peeping at you from the skies
Great big moon am shining
Stars begin to peep
Time for little picaninnies to go to sleep
Time for little picaninnies to go to sleep

I have never heard this song anywhere else and I wonder if any of you are familiar with it?  My grandmother was from Lancashire and her family worked in the cotton mills and we have often wondered whether, with its talk of ‘moon am shining’ and ‘picaninnies’ it might have come across from the West Indies.

However, this is my absolute favourite lullaby of all time and I still sing it to both my boys, despite the fact that Boy the Elder is speeding towards 14.  It is sung by Harry Nilsson and is on his astonishingly beautiful album ‘A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night’ which came out in 1973.  It is a collection of old ballads given a big smoochy orchestra, generously topped with his sleepy, sensual vocals.  Wrap your ears round this:-

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68 Responses to Sing me a Lullaby

  1. wartimehousewife June 4, 2013 at 23:16 #

    Nice to hear from you again Alison. I will definitely look this up as I really like the sound of it. Maybe if it was Creole it had some pirate connection? I’d love to hear the tune….

  2. Claire Baxter October 9, 2013 at 22:37 #

    My Nan is from the East End of London and would sing to me in the 80’s:

    Go to sleep my baby
    Close your little eyes
    Angels up above you, peering at you deary from the skies
    Great big moon keeps shining
    Stars begin to peep
    Time for little girls/boys like Claire (child’s name) to go to sleep

    Makes me feel warm and safe singing it :)

  3. wartimehousewife October 9, 2013 at 22:47 #

    Welcome Claire. Isn’t it interesting how these songs turn up everywhere and they continue to be comforting as long as we remember.
    I still sing it to my ten year old except that we have to sing endless variations eg the cat, his favourite bear, the hamster etc etc.
    Hope you keep reading.

  4. Stefanie Oliver April 23, 2014 at 12:15 #

    My grandma also used to sing this to me, was also from Lancashire (Nelson) and also worked in the mills!!

  5. Lindsey Riley May 17, 2014 at 10:22 #

    My Dad who is from the potteries used to sing the lullaby about the picaninnies to me when I was little and I used to sing it to my kids…along with another one called the little drummer boy

  6. Alison O June 11, 2014 at 22:04 #

    I stumbled across this thread looking up the origins of this lullaby. I’ve just been singing it to my daughter and I’ve never seen or heard it anywhere else, I just remember my Granny singing it to me when I was little and she said her mum sung it to her. They are my Great Grandmother is from Lancashire and my Gran lived in Cheshire all her life. She was born in 1915. I notice some of the other have asked about the origins of the word picaninnies and I think I can help with this. I’m married to a Nigerian man and the pidgin english word for babies / small children is ‘pikin’ (pronounced pik-in). It seems very likely to us that that word travelled to the americas / carribean during the slave trade and evolved.

    The version of the lullaby my Gran sung to me was:

    Go to sleep my baby, close those big blue eyes*
    Angels are above you, peeking at you darling from the skies
    Great big moon in shining, stars begin to peep
    Time for little picaninnies to go to sleep

    (I’ve adapted this to brown eyes for my children and so I suspect my Gran adapted the lullaby to fit my blue eyes). I’d love to be able to ‘date’ this lullaby it has to be at least from the late19th century. Thoughts?

  7. wartimehousewife June 13, 2014 at 09:18 #

    Welcome Alison. Thanks so much for your comments and I was very interested to hear about the African route of picaninnies and, of course, this falls in with my theory about the song having cotton connections with the mills and the cotton trade. I love that this article has brought up so many memories and stories from people!

    As for the date, my grandmother sang it to us and she learned it from HER mother who was born in 1860. If the cotton mill thread (?) is valid, then it may well date from the late 18th century when cotton was coming over from the Americas. I go down to the Cecil Sharpe Folk Archive in London from time to time and I’ll see if I can track it down there.

  8. Saras Ganapathy June 30, 2014 at 15:51 #

    I’m delighted to find this thread. I’m Indian and my mother sang this to me in India in the 1940s. As I now sang it to my grandson in Nairobi I began to wonder about it. Wonderful how these lullabies cross the world!

  9. wartimehousewife June 30, 2014 at 16:02 #

    Welcome Saras. Not only do these songs cross the world but they also reach loving arms across the generations and give us a sense of connection. My father grew up in India but I don’t know whether his mother sang this to him; perhaps I’ll ask his sister. Despite Boy the Younger being eleven, I still sing this to him at bedtime when we’re in a cuddly frame of mind! And you also have the honour of being the first person to comment on this blog from Nairobi! Hope you keep reading.

  10. Saras Ganapathy June 30, 2014 at 17:11 #

    How nice to hear of the India connection! Wouldn’t it be funny if your grandmother was the source of it getting to my mother (I’m 71, so don’t know how likely that would be), I’ll be following this blog with great delight!

  11. Anne July 4, 2014 at 12:26 #

    I’m in my 50s, and my mum sang it to me, her mother to her. None of my friends have ever heard of it! I sang it to my children and now my grandson. The version I know is

    Go to sleep my baby
    close your little eyes
    Angels up above you
    are looking at you sweetly from the skies.
    the great big moon is shining
    stars begin to peep
    time for little baby
    to go to sleep.

    Nan was from Norfolk born 1889, Mum was born and bred in South London (1920). I now sing it to my Scottish grandson- It’s my favourite.

  12. wartimehousewife July 4, 2014 at 12:54 #

    Welcome Anne. Gosh this song has really travelled. Maybe I should do an investigative piece for Radio 4 about it! I wonder if your grandson will sing it to HIS children? I do hope you keep reading.

  13. Sam July 15, 2014 at 11:40 #

    The lyrics lula lula bye bye are from a Paul Robeson piece of music called “curly headed baby”

  14. wartimehousewife July 15, 2014 at 20:29 #

    Welcome Sam. Thanks for that. Do you suppose there’s a recording of that anywhere?

  15. Joseph B August 23, 2014 at 08:29 #

    At a tender age my father would put me over his shoulder – firemans lift- position, and to the tune of the Cuckoo song (Laurel and Hardy theme), carry us up the stairs to bed.

    This being about 66 years ago.

    On Sunday mornings, i’d lay in bed with him, as it was his lay -in morning. I nestled in the crook of his arm, and he’d sing all the old songs to me.

    The one you mention being one of them.

    There were many of course. We were a large family – and on occasions even now when we get together we all sing those same songs,to the grand kids.

    My favourites include ‘Oh by gosh, by gum , by golly , by gee’- (real title unknown), and the Umbrella song , Also- We took our Albert to the zoo. among many others, which have dimmed with the years.

    Happy days those which we shared in the past, When a day seemed forever, and ever to last.

    Especially the boring Sundays when everything ground to a halt, and you got up to the smell of bacon and eggs frying, and the Billy Cotton Band Show on radio. Wakey- Wakey

  16. wartimehousewife August 23, 2014 at 11:02 #

    Thank you for this lovely memory, Joseph, you talk about your father with such warmth and affection; you’ve also made me crave a plate of bacon and eggs!. I, too, remember snuggling up with my grandmother while she read bits out of the Express with the light coming through the floral patterned curtains. Such lovely moments.

  17. Margaret Walton November 14, 2014 at 18:19 #

    Looking for the lyrics of this song my mom use to sing to me.
    Curley headed picaninnies coming in from play
    Crying if your heart would break
    Climb on mammies lamp and take a little nap
    Don’t care what those white folks say

    I don’t remember the rest of the words but would love to have them

  18. wartimehousewife November 14, 2014 at 19:54 #

    Welcome Margaret. I have never heard of this song before and I wonder if it comes from America. Have you Googled it? Has anyone else come across this one?

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