Long ago and far away, when I could still get my stepdaughter’s Miriam to nap, I would often sing as I coaxed her to sleep. “Rock-a-bye Baby”, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and her favorite “Puff the Magic Dragon”. (She even named the blue stuffed dragon I found for her second birthday “Onna” for the song’s “land of Honnalee”.) And who could resist doing “Soft Kitty”, a lullaby from television’s The Big Bang Theory? In the show, an ordinarily aloof nerdy physicist always demands that someone pet him and sing this sweetly incongruous little tune from his childhood, whenever he feels ill.
“Soft kitty, warm kitty.
Little Ball of fur.
Happy kitty, sleepy kitty.
Purr, purr, purr.”
It’s cute, and I kept adding verses. Soft teddy bear … grr, grr, grr. Soft puppy …. Soft belly … gurgle, gurgle, gurgle. Soft Tigger …. Even Soft Grandpa … Happy grandpa, sleepy grandpa. Snore, snore, snore. So it got silly. Let’s say I have a low boredom threshold. And I know I had to sing “Soft teddy bear” (and only that verse!) for 45 long minutes one afternoon before the little tyrant finally fell asleep! When Miriam would let me, I would do songs I like: Woody Guthrie, Sandy Denny, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Billy Bragg, Gordon Lightfoot, Linda Thompson, Tom Paxton. Among others. “In My Life”, “The Highwayman”, “The Great White Horse”, “Sound of Silence”, “The Dolphins”, “Bad Penny”, “Four Strong Winds”, “Willy of Winsbury”, “The Water Is Wide”, “Turn, Turn, Turn”, “Both Sides Now”, “This Land Is Your Land”, “The Circle Game”, “Peace Will Come”. And more.
Miriam has always responded very strongly to music, and she’s quite definite in her tastes. For example, beyond “I Was Born”, (which has Woody Guthrie lyrics), she has never liked Billy Bragg’s songs, though her sister Mishal and I still call her a “little time bomb”. As in “Hush! Don’t wake that little time bomb yet!” And if she didn’t like a song, she’d soon let me know it. Well before she learned to talk, she would clamp a tiny hand over my mouth when I sang the wrong thing, or if I put different words to something she liked. Everyone’s a critic, you know. I just hadn’t realized that happens so soon.
She has surprised me in other ways, too. One day last fall, Miriam and her mommy knocked at the back door while I had some music playing. I had finally found a decent (not obnoxious, not insipid) version of “This Land Is Your Land” sung by children, to add to the music for her on my computer. No big deal, you might think. I was certainly startled by how long it took to find one: a 30-second song sample was more than I wanted to hear of almost all available versions. If you’ve never looked, you’d be appalled by just how much nauseating, insulting, truly bad!! music is out there, marketed as ‘children’s songs’. Child abuse is more like it; some of it could destroy your will to live. People worry about the junk television and video games their kids are exposed to, and about the vulgar language and sexual content in the music they hear. Fair enough, but I can’t see that just plain awful, tuneless, mindless, or mawkish stuff is any better for a child. Even if kids are strong and resilient enough to survive such garbage, I may not be. Life is too damned short to listen to more crap than we can help!
As the girls walked in, I started the new song playing, and when the singers launched into the chorus, Miriam called out, “Linda! It’s your song!” and started singing along. She grabbed my hands, and we sang together as we danced around the kitchen.
“This land is your land, and this land is my land,
From California to the New York island.
From the redwood forests, to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me!”
The odd thing was, I hadn’t been watching her regularly for several months at that point, while my stepdaughter was not taking classes. It had been a long time since I’d sung Miriam to sleep, and she wasn’t three yet. I wasn’t sure she would even recognize “This Land” after so long, as I’d always thought children’s memories were pretty short at that age. But she did more than that — she still remembered the words. Since then I’ve tried to give more thought to the music I let Miriam hear. Who knows what will stick with her? Another good reason to avoid bad music.
But I also discovered that many otherwise fine songs just don’t make good lullabies. The old Child ballads have wonderful melodies, but their stories are quite grim and violent, describing lots of death and worse. I did have enough sense not to try those, much as I love them. (Oh all right, yes I did, but only a few.) Choppy, elaborate, or shifting rhythms would not work; a song needs to be slow and steady enough to coordinate with rocking or patting a child. And tunes with really high parts would always make Miriam more restless, so I learned to avoid them. The hard way, of course.
Thus “Turn Turn Turn” and most Pete Seeger songs were tricky to use, as he tended to write tunes for his extensive vocal range. I can still hit high notes but not always quietly, which takes more breath control. Many Woody Guthrie songs worked better. “This Land Is Your Land” has a good tempo for rocking a baby, and it’s not too rangy. And by doing a chorus between each verse, it can easily stretch ten to fifteen minutes. (This does mean singing even the more political verses, but after all, I’d do “The Internationale” too, if it didn’t have those pesky high notes in the chorus.) I particularly liked singing Woody’s “I Ain’t Got No Home”, using the slower, more plaintive arrangement Billy Bragg plays. And sadly, after the 2008 meltdown, the song is once again all too timely.
“The rich man took my home, and drove me from my door.
And I ain’t got no home in this world any more.”
Then we hit a snag. Our nap room was on the northwest corner of the house, and when the wind was strong we could hear it whistling and whooshing around some windows that needed better weatherstripping. Miriam also enjoyed the occasional story, with Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs among her favorites. One gusty day she seemed really worried. She was only two then and struggled to make me understand her. Finally, I got it: she wanted to know if the big bad wolf could blow our house down? Or Mommy and Daddy’s house? I did my best to reassure her that this is a very strong house, even though it’s not made of bricks. And I said that her home was good and strong too, so we were all safe from wolves and winds alike. Within reason, anyway.
If only we were equally secure from big bad bankers and other heartless predators! Proper building codes help protect us from the elements, from unscrupulous builders, and shoddy materials. But we don’t seem to have comparably strong, effective codes and regulations for our financial system. We’re now paying — and paying, and paying — for the folly and shameless cynicism of our political leaders, who weakened and even eliminated such safeguards as we did have, such as the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banking from investment banking , the kind involved in securities trading. This had been put in place precisely to prevent a repetition of the catastrophic result of our then-largely unregulated market — the Great Depression. Maybe you’ve heard of it, but our leaders apparently had not. Or they believed the ‘experts’ who claimed that could never happen again. Or maybe they just didn’t care. Sigh. I’ve heard that it’s hard to foolproof things, because fools are so ingenious. And greed-proofing must be even tougher.
As for Miriam’s concerns, those were a bit easier to deal with. I stopped telling The Three Little Pigs story. And once I thought of it, I also stopped singing “I Ain’t Got No Home” for her. She was so young I wasn’t sure she could even understand the words, and maybe she didn’t. Yet she’s a pretty perceptive little girl. And Woody’s music is pretty powerful. It seemed a kindness to postpone the harsher lessons of our economic reality for a little longer, at least until she learned to count.
But I keep wondering how many of our children don’t have that luxury. How many families have no homes any more? Bruce Springsteen puts it this way:
“No home, no job, no peace, no rest …
With the shelter line stretching around the corner.
Welcome to the new world order.”
Which sounds very much as if we’re back to Woody’s essential question:
“By the relief office, I’ve seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering,
Is this land still made for you and me?”
And after the past thirty years of relentless outsourcing of good jobs, busting our unions, privatizing every possible public service, deregulating our banks and corporations, and the ever-increasing income disparity between the super-rich and the rest of us, it does feel like this land is now only for millionaires. Maybe just billionaires: those “too big to fail, and too rich to jail”.
“I’ve come to see, in the land of the free,
There’s only a future for the chosen few.”
Land of the “free market”, home of the slave? That’s a pretty bleak prospect — the return of feudalism. Which you know damned well is not nearly as picturesque as the Bayeux tapestry and all those kitchy Renaissance fairs might suggest. Vast power and privilege for a very few people, maintained by force, and supported by the hopeless poverty, misery and oppression of everyone else.
Can we change this? I think so, but I wonder if we will. Even with all their money and power, the “One Percent” can never defeat the rest of us if we will work and fight them together. But we’ve let them deceive, distract, and divide us into mutually suspicious, ineffectual, bite-sized groups that they can safely and cynically ignore, manipulate, or eliminate if we ever seem too threatening. Only facing that truth, and working in solidarity with those sharing our interests will ever give us a decent chance of freedom and justice. Apparently, it’s easier to just believe comfortable lies and distortions, watch American Idol, and hope for a big lottery win. New world order, hell; welcome to the new Dark Ages. I can hardly wait for the new Black Death. – LLF