Before she became self-conscious about her singing voice, my mother sang to baby-me at bedtime, after the book chapter was read, In the long run, it was the reading that had the most obvious influence on me as I grew up, and grew older, and grew old. I am a life-long reader as well as a listener to audio books, and could not live without other people's stories and voices. Her singing to me, which stopped when I was about six years old, did not predispose me to a life dedicated to music. In fact, I have a sneaky feeling that her tone-deaf renditions permanently warped my pitch.
But recently I encountered in the depths of my memory a couple of songs that I know without a doubt she sang to me. Not "Baa, Baa Black Sheep" (although it was wondering where the tune I remember for that song came from, once I realized it was suspiciously just like the tune for "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star") nor "Old Macgregor" nor "One Two Buckle My Shoe" - although she may well have sung them to me.
The songs I dragged up from a sense-memory more than 60 years old were: "My Father Was the Keeper of the Eddystone Light" and "Abdul Abulbul Amir." You must pause here to listen to these two unlikely lullabies, courtesy of YouTube.... Just click the links and walk with me down memory lane. Ignore the masculine renditions. This was my wavering-pitch mom - beautiful, alcoholic, not very reliable, wicked smart and funny as hell.
Probably these songs don't remind you of your toddler years. And no wonder - "slept with a mermaid one fine night"? I couldn't have been more than a baby when I first heard those words, and it didn't occur to me until I was well into my teens that I had never wondered what that meant. And once I thought about it, I was appalled - shocked, shocked! - as only a teen-age girl can be.
Ah well. And where did my mother get these songs? My guess is that during her young adulthood, before and during WWII, she ran with a bohemian, Dorothy Parker-ish crowd where 18th century sea chanteys were trotted out when the gin and bourbon flowed. And when you think of it, there could have been much worse drinking songs for her to bring into my little nursery! ("Roll Me Over in the Clover" anyone?)
I turned to YouTube to resurrect the lyrics and melodies of these songs.Immediately, I knew exactly which variant of the words she had used, and I was struck by how witty the songs are. They are piquant. They are risque. They aren't French, but they could be, given the adjectives I've chosen.... They are also pretty straightforward to perform: da DUM tee dee DUM tee dee DUM tee dee DUM. No strange intervals. Nice repetitive melodies. French songs of the time would have required a Piaf, and that was way beyond her.
So I look at this little horde of sung words that she left me, just part of the very meagre store of good things that she bequeathed me, and I salute her.
Helen Eulalah Sennette Handler: good songs, wry humor -- thanks