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
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.