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 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 any time he feels ill.
“Soft kitty, warm kitty; little Ball of fur.
Happy kitty, sleepy kitty; purr, purr, purr.”
It’s cute, and we kept adding verses. Soft puppy … grr, grr, grr. Soft teddy bear. Soft belly … gurgle, gurgle, gurgle. Soft Tigger. Even 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! Miriam permitting, I would sneak in more music I like: Woody Guthrie, Sandy Denny, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Gordon Lightfoot, Linda Thompson, Tom Paxton. Among others. ‘In My Life’, ‘The Highwayman’, ‘The Great White Horse’, ‘Sound of Silence’, ‘The Dolphins’, ‘Early Morning Rain’, ‘Bad Penny’, ‘Four Strong Winds’, ‘Willy of Winsbury’, ‘The Water Is Wide’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, ‘The Circle Game’, ‘Peace Will Come’. And more.
Miriam has always responded strongly to music, and she’s quite definite in her tastes. For example, beyond ‘I Was Born’ with its 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 doesn’t like a song, she soon lets me know it. Well before she learned to talk, she would clamp a tiny hand over my mouth if I sang the wrong thing, or 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 autumn afternoon, Miriam and her mommy knocked at the back door while I was playing some new music. I had finally found a decent (not obnoxious, not insipid) version of ‘This Land Is Your Land’ sung by children, to add to our music choices. No big deal, you might think, but it proved quite a quest. Some 30-second song samples seem almost endless. If you’ve never looked, there’s a glut of syrupy, insulting music 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 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 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 hit 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 was not babysitting regularly just then, while my stepdaughter had some time off. It had been a long time since I’d sung Miriam to sleep. Since she wasn’t three yet, I wondered if 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.
Yet 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 debauchery, and worse, and I had just enough sense never to try those, much as I love them. Well, almost never. I can still hit the high notes but not always quietly, which takes more breath control — and louder is not better in a lullaby, strangely enough. Who knew? Tunes with really high parts would always make Miriam more restless anyway, so I learned to avoid them as well. The hard way of course. Thus ‘Turn Turn Turn’ and most Pete Seeger songs were tricky to use, as he wrote for his extensive vocal range. And choppy, elaborate, or shifting rhythms would never work for me; apparently a song needs to be slow and steady enough to coordinate with rocking or patting a child.
Perhaps because his writing is so straightforward — not simple, never condescending, but honest and direct — many Woody Guthrie songs do work well as lullabies. ‘This Land’ also has a good tempo for rocking a baby, and it’s not too rangy. By doing a chorus between each verse, it can easily stretch ten to fifteen minutes, which can be a big help. This does mean including the more political verses, but then 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 financial meltdown, the song was 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 fairy tale, with Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs among her favorites. One gusty day she seemed really worried. She was barely 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, including the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated regular commercial banking from the much riskier investment banking , the kind handling such things as derivatives and the now-infamous credit default swaps. These measures were put in place in the 1930’s precisely to avoid repeating the disastrous consequence 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. 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. Maybe she was still too young to understand the words. But she is pretty perceptive. 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 quite possibly it is not. After thirty years of relentless neoconservative propaganda and policies — off-shoring good jobs, busting unions, cuttinghh corporate, income and capital gains tax rates, privatizing every possible public service, deregulating business and industry — resulting in the ever-increasing income disparity between the super-rich and the rest of us, it does feel as if this land is now only for millionaires. Maybe just for billionaires: those “too big to fail, and too rich to jail”.
How in hell did we let this happen? Ignorance never helps. My generation came along while the labor movement still seemed strong, and near the culmination of the long, grueling struggle for civil rights. We supported women’s liberation, and opposed the Vietnam War. When we witnessed some progress, we naively thought our brief efforts were responsible for it. And complacency is no help either. Somehow, we also got the absurd idea that change is relatively easy, and stopped paying enough attention.
Meanwhile, Nixon hadn’t finished his resignation speech before the reactionaries began plotting their return to power, and their revenge for the humiliation of Watergate. They cut their organizational teeth while fighting abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, exploiting our fears of social change. Ironically, they carefully studied and used many of the effective strategies developed in the struggle for progressive reforms. They worked quietly, relentlessly to take over school boards, state legislatures, and the judiciary at all levels. And all too soon , they had put Ronald Reagan in the White House. Preaching free trade. Praising tax cuts. Promising prosperity. Busting unions. Belittling the poor. Schmoozing the press. Deregulating the banks, airlines and telecoms. Smugly assuring us that government was our biggest problem. And they’ve been selling us the same damn lies ever since.
Sigh. I know it sounds harsh, even paranoid, but I sometimes feel we might have saved ourselves a lot of trouble if only we had put everyone remotely connected with the Nixon administration up against a wall, and shot every damned one of them. They’ve certainly come back to haunt us. But then I’m still haunted by even this stark, sad little example of what we have allowed these well-funded radical zealots to do to our country. Sometime in the late 1980’s, while my stepdaughter was still in school, she came in one weekend singing a Woody Guthrie parody she’d heard from her classmates.
“This land’s not your land! This land is my land!
I’ve got a shotgun, and you’ve not got one.
I’ll blow your head off, if you don’t get off!
This land is private property!”
Certainly, that raised every hackle I possessed, making me snarl and swear, and mutter things about Woody turning in his grave! Yet I knew that junior high kids are too often repellent little fascists, and didn’t take it all that seriously at the time. But in hindsight, I am convinced that such a hateful perversion did not just happen. We may never see anyone take credit for it, but I’m willing to bet that some insidious neocon operative, some pernicious Carl Rove type, penned and distributed it. It so epitomizes the twisted ‘philosophy’ they embrace in order to justify total greed, selfishness, and contempt for other people. More than that — they celebrate and glorify such savagery. Something to be proud of, I guess.
I know how discouraging all this can be, but our situation is not hopeless. Even with all their money and power, with all their lackeys and sycophants, the mega-rich can never defeat the rest of us if we will fight them together. The trouble is, we’ve let them deceive, distract, demoralize 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. Can we change this? I think so, yet I sometimes wonder if we will. Clearly, it’s easier to just believe comfortable lies and distortions, watch American Idol, and hope for a big lottery win. But if we ever want a better world, a world of peace, justice, fairness and freedom, a world with respect, compassion and dignity for everyone, we need to get off our asses and work on it. Because life is short. And change is hard. So what? Are we willing to let this wave of greedy heartless barbarians suck the life and promise out of our children? I hope not! If you and I don’t make a start on reclaiming what is ours, who will? Let’s see how much progress we can make together, brothers and sisters. All the Miriams are counting on us.