Anatomy of a Lullaby

My son is about four months old, and I spend a lot of time walking around our house with him in my arms, talking to him about what a great little guy he is and babbling on about whatever is on my mind. As a rule, he seems to think that me sitting down while holding him makes porcupine quills shoot out of my arms, so this crankiness leads to him growing tired. As any parent knows, though, being tired does not mean a baby is going to–heaven forbid!–close his eyes, so when he really needs to be put down, Daddy sings a lullaby. But this is harder than it seems.

You see, you have to sing a lullaby by memory. And there are only so many (that is, one) verses in “Rock-a-bye Baby” and me riffing on “Hush Little Baby” leads me to make up things Daddy’s going to buy him. This is what my boy has to look forward to after my gift of a Mockingbird (why would I buy him that? He couldn’t possibly care for a bird!):

If that diamond ring don’t shine,

Daddy’s going to buy you a land mine.

If that land mine doesn’t explode,

Daddy’s going to buy you a toilet commode

If that toilet commode don’t flush,

Daddy’s going to buy you an Orange Crush

If you want to know what happens when that Orange Crush don’t fizz, you’ll have to enter the following captcha to prove that you’re 18.

(Yes, I know captchas don’t prevent lying about your age. But you have to have been born before 1995 to know the inability to contain Lew Alcindor’s Skyhook)

But “Hush” and “Rockabye” are the only lullabies I’m really familiar with. So I’m left with singing pop and rock songs, but only ones that I can remember the words to without having the music. That’s tougher than it seems, at least for me, made especially more difficult when I also have to consider the songs that I can’t slow down enough to turn into proper sleepy-time music. (So no “Radar Love” by Golden Earring, at least not until he gets his own Power Wheels) My musical palate is pretty limited, too, leaving me with few options. While Christmas music gave me a little reprieve, holiday standards easy to whisper to my lil’ guy during those cold December nights, it wasn’t until the last month or so that I settled on a song that really worked, because it was equal parts melodic, soothing, and most of all, subliminal.

Nebraska is an acoustic album from Bruce Springsteen, originally recorded in his apartment as a demo to play with the E Street Band but rightfully released stripped down and about as bare-bones as possible. Most of the songs are narratives about the dark immoral side of life in recessionary early-80’s America, with songs about spree murderers, unemployed auto plant workers, dreams of winning the lottery, and organized crime. “My Father’s House,” the second-to-last track, has long been my favorite on the album. It inspired a short story of mine (one that I haven’t touched, unfortunately, for a few years), and like most young men, I have my own issues with my father (or at least my idea of him). The song is haunting but not maudlin, simple but deeply allegorical:

Last night I dreamed that I was a child out where the pines grow wild and tall
I was trying to make it home through the forest before the darkness falls

I heard the wind rustling through the trees and ghostly voices rose from the fields
I ran with my heart pounding down that broken path
With the devil snappin’ at my heels

I broke through the trees, and there in the night
My father’s house stood shining hard and bright the branches and brambles tore my clothes and scratched my arms
But I ran till I fell, shaking in his arms

I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart
Will never again, sir, tear us from each other’s hearts
I got dressed, and to that house I did ride from out on the road, I could see its windows shining in light

I walked up the steps and stood on the porch a woman I didn’t recognize came and spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story, and who I’d come for
She said “I’m sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore”

My father’s house shines hard and bright it stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining ‘cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned

In sum: the song is about a man who dreams of being a child again, embraced and consoled by his father, waking up needing to reconcile with him. When he tries to bridge this emotional and geographical distance, he finds that his father no longer lives at his house–that the man (and presumably his father, too) will never be able to make up and repair their relationship. And since it’s Springsteen, it has the word “highway” in it.

The first time I sang that to my little guy, he fell asleep right on that last word: “unatoned.” It was beautiful; I even stretched out my pronunciation of the word so I could say, “Good night, buddy” as I put him in his crib. As a parent, you’re happy when something works, consequences be damned, right? But I will admit that I did question my choice in lullaby. Should my son hear this as he drifts off each night? Is it fair to hypnopaedially condition him to wanting to preemptively make up with his father? Have I doomed him to his first words being an apologetic, “I’m sorry, Daddy”?

I can’t say for sure. After all, he doesn’t always fall asleep to “My Father’s House.” Sometimes he’s still wide awake, and I have to move on to The Gaslight Anthem’s “Here’s Looking at You Kid” (about a bunch of failed relationships). And if he’s really bright-eyed, I throw in a little Billy Joel and “Piano Man” (about a bunch of drunks with unfulfilled dreams) until he finally fades in the glow of his turtle night light.

I’m sure I won’t have to worry about that this evening, though. Mommy will probably be taking him up to his crib.

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