Momma’s ‘Lullabies’

lia guthrieWhen my mother was a young girl growing up in Leland, Mississippi, she and her sister, Babe, and their first cousin (same age), Patsy Jeanne, would get to spend a lot of time together in the summers.

Momma especially liked learning to make homemade biscuits from Mammaw Black. Other fun activities included Poppa Black playing his fiddle while they danced around the living room. They also made up plays to perform for him because Poppa was a great audience.

Probably the most memorable thing they did was learn songs that Aunt Victoria and Baby Emma (Victoria’s little sister) would teach them. I vaguely remember Momma singing them to me and my siblings when we were young. But I have a vivid memory of her singing them to my two children when they were babies.

Many years later when we would have our annual Black Family Reunion, singing these songs was a big part of the festivities. It was always interesting to listen to them “harmonize.” Sometimes, they even mixed up the verses and put part of another song in the first song…must have been a favorite.

By far, the “must-do” song was “Poor Babes in the Woods.” Now, I don’t know whether any of you have ever heard this song, but surmise it to say, it is not your average lullaby. Goes something like, “O say do you know, a long time ago, two poor little children whose names I don’t know.”

Now that should be your first clue, but it gets worse. About verse three, the poor little babes get lost in the woods, then night comes, the “moon went down and the stars gave no light, they sobbed and sighed and sadly they cried, and the poor little things laid down and DIED!”

But wait. There’s more. “And when they were dead, the robin so red brought strawberry leaves and over them spread.” Each verse was met with more sorrow and shaking of heads while they sang and inflections on strawberry leaves.

Another favorite was “The Old Apple Tree.” It, too, has several verses. And it, too, has a tragic end. Goes something like, “There’s an old apple tree in the orchard, lives in my memory. It reminds me of my Pappy. He was handsome, young and happy when he planted the old apple tree.”

And much like Poor Babes, it takes a sad turn….something about Pappy running off with Widow Norton and neighbors coming after Pappy. Think they put the apples in a basket, cut the tree down for a casket and now poor Pappy’s gone with the tree.

I’m not sure I should even bring up the “Titanic.” Suffice it to say, “They built the old Titanic, and when that ship was through, they thought they built a ship the water would not leak through. But by God Almighty’s hand, that old ship refused to stand, it was sad when the great ship when down.” Then there was something about the band broke out “Nearer My God to Thee,” and “husbands and wives, little children lost their lives.” I mean, honestly, our parents thought OUR music would scar us?

I must say, I do enjoy listening to the three ladies still sing these old songs. It seems to transport them back to a time where innocence was the order of the day. Heck, I even enjoy singing them myself!

Recently, Momma had a rough bout of pneumonia. Thankfully, with a lot of prayers, she is on the mend. She had a sweet nurse, Amanda, with her for several days to monitor her closely. Because she was in the hospital, and because she is now in a health care facility, she is in isolation for a few days due to COVID-19.

I talked with her this morning and asked what she and Amanda were going to do today. She said she thought they would do a little reading and coloring. I asked if she thought she might want to teach Amanda some of those old songs they used to sing. Her response? “Heaven’s no. I don’t want to scare her off.”

— Lia Guthrie
Redwood Valley, California

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