Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Atlanta, part 2

Husband has a dear, sweet aunt in Atlanta that we were visiting, too, the mother of the opera singer and the sister of his deceased father. Let me say first off that this aunt is probably the sweetest, kindest, most baby-loving woman I have ever had the privilege of meeting. She's 83 years old and a native of Belize, though it was British Honduras in her day. She still speaks with a clipped, colonial accent though Husband's father did not.

The last night of our visit, I handed Sweet P to Husband's aunt to cuddle and say goodnight to before I took her back to sleep. This old lady was so delighted at having a little one in her arms that the whole room went still, watching her obvious pleasure. She told us how she used to sing to her own babies to get them to sleep and began singing a little lullaby to Sweet P, who immediately stopped her grousing and calmed to listen. She sang it several times and I began to pick up the lyrics--something about "little picaninny," "silver Southern moon," and "Mama's little Alabama coon."

Wow. I have to admit I was torn here between real dismay at these lyrics so shockingly racist to my modern ears, and great pleasure that this lovely woman was getting such joy, remembering her own long-ago young motherhood. I know that she would never consider herself a racist. She and her Jamaican caregivers talk a lot about life in that part of the world and seem to me to interact as if they're all old friends. Still, I can't help but feel like this little vignette was a slice of antebellum Southern plantation life.

Here are the lyrics that Husband's aunt sang to Sweet P. And by the way, according to the good old internet, this is the chorus of a song that was first published in 1893. Husband's aunt was singing a song 115 years old!

Go to sleep my little picaninny
Brer fox'll catch you if you don't
Slumber on the bosom of your Mammy
Mammy's gonna whack you if you don't
Loo loo loo loo looah looah loo
Underneath the silver southern moon
Lullaby, rockabye my baby
Mammy's little Alabama Coon


Mama D said...

I think that sounds really sweet. It's amazing how old lyrics can sound so shocking when the songs are sung now. I know some people would say it's a sign of racism that the people who sang them didn't necessarily even realize that they were offensive but most of the time I think that the fact that they don't notice means that is because that negative way of thinking is foreign to them. But maybe I'm talking out of my @ss. She sounds like a lovely woman anyhow!

Bina said...

Isn't it amazing how many songs like that have ... you know, violence in them, yet they are such GREAT songs? You know, Rock a bye baby, stuff like that.

But isn't nice to have someone like that LOVE to hold your baby and sing to them? I think older people appreciate babies more than any one else. For reasons, that are probably obvious!

Joan said...

Never heard that one before. My parents tried to push an old copy of Little Black Sambo on my kids when they were young. I don't think they ever understood my objections.

chris said...

Oh sweet mother of god. I might just be speechless. Although as I recall my former FIL used to horrify me at times and yet was the same man who supported a young African American man his entire childhood. What a strange history our country has.

Devilish Southern Belle said...

I had never heard that one, either. But good or bad, I do love hearing/reading snippets of the past like that. Tends to remind us of how far we've come, and in some cases, how far we still have to go.

Val said...

My own grandma used to sing a version of this lullaby to us in Newcastle upon Tyne, in North East England to her grandchildren born from the 1940's to 1960's.
I remembered it recently and found original song sheets on the internet. I was quite shocked at the original words. Grandma was born in 1889 so it may have been popular when she was a little girl. She used to sing:
Go to sleep my little picaninny
Daddy Fox'll catch you if you don't,
Rock a bye, Hush a bye, Mammy's little baby.
Mammy's little alabalacoo.
Another verse ended 'Slumber in the bosom of your old Mother Jinny, Mammy's little alabalacoo'
No violence in our version and the last word has changed to a funny word! Like the first comment, I don't think there was any racism intended by people like my grandma singing their own version.

lynn said...

Val, I was thrilled to find the words to the song that my grandmother used to sing to me 60 years ago. I had it all mixed up with another one that was called Lulla Lulla Lulla Lula Bye Bye and have sung it incorrectly to my own children in the past.That isw the tune that I remember her singing it too. Is there a name to the one you posted? My grandmother was born London but her Mother was born in Birmingham which is also in the North of England. I wonder how a song like that came to be sung there? My Nan was born in 1897 and my great Grandmother in 1870
The only difference in words is that she sang "Sly fox" instead of Daddy Fox. She also sang alabalcoo at the end. I have always wondered what that meant, quite surprised to find out. Thanks so much for posting.