The trials of parenthood have been well documented – the years of penury, the torturous sleep deprivation, the scatological mayhem. But an overlooked form of persecution is children’s songs and lullabies. When you’re not bombarded by automated toys’ chimes of Baa Baa Black Sheep or Frère Jacques, you’re singing it yourself. Surely there’s another way?
They might feel perennial and traditional, but songs for infants have changed since you were a baby, mainly because kids’ entertainment and pop culture have cross- pollinated.
Many pop classics have the same qualities as lullabies; catchy melodies, repeated refrains and simple lyrics. Indeed, a survey of UK parents by BT found that Moon River was the most popular (relatively) modern song with parents, followed by There must be an Angel by Eurythmics and Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice.
And now you have the option of providing your children the original or a newly modified, baby-friendly version of pop music. For instance, Taylor Swift's 1989 is available in lullaby form, and the company Jammy Jams recreates classics with gentle xylophone instrumentals.
Jammy Jams' output includes gentler versions of metal, pop, classic rock and rap songs. Its hip-hop album, for instance, is called Once upon a Rhyme and includes infantilised covers of such rap classics as Hey Ya by Outkast, Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio and Nothin' but a G Thang by Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg.
And what do popular musicians sing to their children?
Jeff Tweedy, lead singer of Wilco and father of two, writes his own lullabies. He sang one of these to chat show host Stephen Colbert on The Late Show recently. "Sometimes you cry and then you're okay," Tweedy sang to Colbert while the host wore pyjamas and cuddled a soft toy, "tomorrow's going to be a great day".
Composing and improvising lullabies is common among songwriters. Mary Black, whose own children went on to become well-known musicians, says her household had a mix of nursery rhymes, improvised songs and trad standards.
“When my kids were small my mother sang to them all the time,” Black says. “It was all about songs for her. The songs she sang could be old ones from her era or nursery rhymes. She had different songs for different occasions.
“For instance, if we were on a road trip she’d sing a song called The Green Fields Far Away: ‘We’re all going off in our motor car to the green fields far away . . .’ If it was raining she’d get an umbrella and sing Under My Umbrella. Then there were some lullabies at bedtime.
"I find myself singing many of the same songs to my own grandchildren so her legacy lives on," Black adds. "My dad would always bounce the kids on his lap and sing Ride a Cock Horse or Come Down from the Mountains Katie Daly. "
Tom Dunne, a musician and broadcaster, shares his music taste for a living. This continues at home with his daughters Eva (9) and Skye (7). He admits he sang them "bog standards" like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star when they were little, but he also sang The Beatles' children's songs, "like Goodnight from The White Album".
Parents don’t have to be beholden to songs they hate at bedtime. Dunne says the experience is more important than the material. “It’s the tone of your voice getting close to them,” he says, “so I’d make up anything at all with rhymes that have their names in it. ‘Now’s the time for Eva to put her head on the pillow/and close her eyes and think of nice things for tomorrow . . . ’”
Dunne doesn’t especially like nursery rhymes, but admits that “they’re soothing for them. Bedtime is a big issue with us and always was. It’s a real moment of quality time. I remember thinking ‘does it ever end?’ but it means a lot to the two of them and you can’t short-change them.
“Skye has a checklist; a hug, a kiss and a lullaby. She won’t sleep without a song in her ear. They share a room and it’s a safe, warm, lovely place.”
When singing to children (or playing songs for them), it is easy to forget the infinite choice of music at your disposal. Singer-songwriter Adrian Crowley has two children, Max (13) and Alice (6), and sings a mix of his own compositions and old classics.
"I cast my mind back to when Max was a baby and I'd make up songs with him on the spot," he says. "With Alice, I sing her particular ones she asks for again and again. For some reason, I was going through a Lee Hazelwood phase and she picked up on that. And she'd ask me to sing 'that song about Jackson'. Then I'd realise that she meant the song Jackson, with Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra.
"And YouTube is great – I'd find a few Hazelwood songs on YouTube and we'd sing along or learn them off together. And randomly in odd places she'd ask me to sing She Comes Running. It's lazily sung and it's got a sprightly chorus. She's got an amazing memory for words and melody. She's a six-year-old girl so she likes pop songs that are around now, but with me she sings songs from the 1960s."
It is a conflict: on the one hand, you want to enjoy music together, but on the other, you could fall into the trap of trying to force your tastes on to your children, which, of course, is one way to guarantee that they won’t like your preferred music. The good news, though, is that they might follow your music tastes regardless.
"I think you do definitely influence their tastes," Dunne agrees. "They love you and want to please you and listening to what you listen to is a way to please you. They often come up to my office and say whether they like the music there or not. Eva has started writing names of tracks and marking them out of 10. They were listening to Fleetwood Mac's The Chain and [band]The Mystery Jets – they know one from beginning to end and it's an album track! They went online to get the lyrics. I didn't think those influences would happen. They know how to hold a vinyl record – they've been trained!"
“I don’t think it’s my job to tell them what music they should like,” says Crowley. “They absorb music anyway and they have a personality right at the start. It’s incredible how much they retain and recall and I’m amazed by their musical progress.
“My son plays the uilleann pipes so he confirmed his musical abilities a few years ago after my suspecting that he had some. So they decided what they liked without me pushing them that way. But what’s nice is that they’d ask me about songs that I had been listening to without realising. They keep what they want to keep.”
For Crowley, his children's mixed heritage has played a part in their musical education. His wife is French so his kids are bilingual. "With Alice it's more like standard [French singers] like Françoise Hardy. Max loved her too. So there's a song called Mon Ami La Rose. When Max was four he was saying 'sing the Trieste song'. So I'd sing Tres Belle and so on."
You don't have to go that route (or teach them the uilleann pipes). If you want to go in a more purist direction, many classic back catalogues have parallel lives as kiddie songs. Bob Marley, the aforementioned Beatles and Michael Jackson all marry catchy hooks with simple (although not always simplistic) lyrics.
Singing to children is –like most aspects of parenting – trial and error. They will tell you, even in infancy, what music they like. Before you decide, though, do remember that if they like the song, you will be singing it hundreds of times. Your choices will diminish as their taste develops, but in the first few weeks, whether it’s rock ’n’ roll or Rock a Bye Baby is up to you.
1. Spongebob Squarepants Theme by Avril Lavigne
2. Dream a Little Dream by The Mamas and the Papas
3. Jackson by Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra
4. Three Little Birds by Bob Marley
5. Goodnight by The Beatles
6. Just a Kid by Wilco
7. Bein’ Green by Andrew Bird
8. Lean on Me by Bill Withers
9. Just Like Heaven by The Cure
10. Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice
11. There must be an Angel by Eurythmics
12. Moon River by Audrey Hepburn