I wish I was a red rosy bush,
By the banks of the sea,
And every time my true love would pass by
She could pick a rose off of me.
Years and decades and centuries ago we started singing bedtime songs to our children. It began with the usual nursery rhymes. My favorites were “Sing a Song of Sixpence” and “One Misty Moisty Morning.” Over time, though, both singer and listener called for more variety.
I reached back into my own childhood and remembered an old favorite. “Leatherwing Bat.”
“I,” said the little leatherwing bat,
“I’ll tell you the reason that…
The reason that I fly by night
Is because I lost my heart’s delight.”
And so through three or four other unhappy animals with lessons to learn about love. The tune is well matched to the words, with sharp short lines and accented rhymes. I have always loved it, never mind that it paints a gloomy view of relationships.
Later I recalled “Red Rosy Bush.” I had heard it as a child on a Harry Belafonte record my parents had. It pleasantly haunted me then and I could recall the tune and almost all of the words. It took me quite some time to track down the rest. Singing this took more control and range than I had used before, but I stretched to reach this one because, again, the tune is marvelously fit to the words and sentiments.
At Old Salem several Christmases ago we heard a fiddler playing in the Tavern. It was getting dark, the candles were lit, the tunes were traditional. Except that we were the only ones in the common room with the fiddler, we could have imagined ourselves back in the late 1700s. While we were moving away from the common room, I heard the fiddle take up an eerie melody in a minor key. I stood still in shock, plunged back into my childhood. This mournful plaintive song had been on a Christmas album in our house. I had never known its name. I rushed back to the common room, listened with tears in my eyes and my heart in my throat until he finished, then asked the name of the tune. He told me, and when I explained how much it meant to me he mentioned that it had words. He let me copy them out while he went on playing for other visitors.
That hymn is actually an Advent hymn, not Christmas. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent.” It began an Internet search later that evening for other old Christmas tunes that I had known and loved and never heard any more. I printed them off and began using them for bedtimes during that Christmas season.
From there the whole thing has gotten deliciously carried away. I now have a blue folder almost an inch thick full of printed lyrics to all sorts of things. Our daughter and younger son get a song each night from this heap; they each have a different “place” in the pages. Folk songs, show tunes, old standards, current well crafted pop, hymns – it’s all jumbled together. The only criteria are that they have to work a cappella, they have to have good words, and I have to enjoy singing them.
The Fox, Mush Mush Mush, Until the Night, In Dulci Jubilo, As Time Goes By, Old Kentucky Home, Scotland the Brave, Codfish Ball, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, That’s Amore, Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod, White Squall, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Put on a Happy Face, How Can I Keep from Singing, Orbiting Jupiter, Stars Fell on Alabama, Pop Goes the Weasel, Lions at the Door, People Will Say We’re in Love, On the Street Where You Live, Summerfly, Endless Chain, Let the River Run, Speak Softly Love, Red Sombrero, All the Things You Are, Barefoot Children in the Rain, The Minstrel Boy, We Gather Together, Eres Tu, Trouble in the Fields, Bali Hai…
I love to sing these and over a hundred others, coming round to them again in the folder. I try to put myself into them as much as I can, sing them with sincerity and feeling, identifying with the voice. Many nights we end up discussing the ups and downs, the wisdom and folly portrayed in the stories.
But most of all, I am passing on a love for these tunes, for singing, for music, for life. And I’m kissing my lovely children goodnight as I close the fat blue folder.