I could have filled this whole playlist with Duke Ellington songs, or Billie Holiday recordings. Recordings of Billie Holiday singing Duke Ellington songs are almost too much musical pleasure to bear. This one falls into that large category of songs that are maybe too depressing for lullabies if you think about the lyrics too hard, but the melody is so perfect, so why ruin a good thing?..
Anguished breakup songs are maybe not super appropriate for lullaby purposes, but our culture has a lot more songs aimed at lovers than babies, so we have to make do with what we’ve got...
You might think this song belongs more on a playlist for dancing your baby to sleep. It does indeed work great for that, though my kids prefer “Beat It” for dance party purposes. But like a lot of the best uptempo songs, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” also works well if you sing it slowly.
“Free Fallin’” is my favorite Tom Petty song. I know that makes me sound basic, since it was his biggest hit, and the rest of his catalog is so wide and deep. But "Free Fallin'" really does it for me. In the wake of Petty’s death, I found the multitrack stems and listened to them closely. Later on, while singing the song to my daughter, I realized why I think it’s so cool: its ruthless, fearless minimalism.
Making this playlist shows me just how wide the distance is between most of the music I enjoy listening to and the music I can sing. Hip-hop is a case in point. I love listening to it, but I sound too much like Niles Crane to really participate. Also, rap is not generally a very lullaby-friendly genre. Or so I thought, until I encountered the mellifluous sounds of Chancellor Johnathan Bennett, better known to the world as Chance The Rapper...
I first heard this when I was walking through my college’s campus center. A student jazz group called the Hot Sextet (ha, ha) was playing in the lounge area, and the melody stopped me in my tracks. Ellington tunes often have this quality of intense nostalgia, even when you’re hearing them for the first time.
Singing quietly in a darkened room is not the only way to get a baby to fall asleep. You can also dance with them to loud, beat-driven music in a room full of people. Babies like all kinds of grooves, from gangsta rap to eighties pop to death metal. My favorite thing to dance to is funk, so my kids are grooving to a lot of that.
This recording doesn't have the lyrics, but you can look those up. What it does have is so much soul. So, so much soul. Jimmy Smith’s organ playing is so buttery and smooth it practically clogs your arteries. Between 1956 and 1964, he did forty recording sessions for Blue Note, and all of them are killers.
Tim Eriksen is the best folk singer you’ve never heard of. By “folk singer,” I don’t mean “affable white person with an acoustic guitar,” but rather ”an interpreter of old and ownerless music.” Tim focuses mostly on traditional songs from Appalachia and New England, but he also sprinkles in punk rock, Bosnian pop, and some South Indian classical as well...
I hadn’t planned on including this song in the playlist, because while it’s a great one, it would never have occurred to me to sing it as a lullaby. But a few weeks ago, it came up in iTunes shuffle, and both my kids reacted to it immediately. My son wanted to hear it a second time. Then he asked for it a third time. Then a fourth. After nine repeats, we made him stop and go to bed. The next day he asked to hear it on continuous repeat for forty-five minutes or so. Evidently, it made an impression.
I self-identify as a New York Jew, but I also have some ancestry from the Lutheran Midwest. If my paternal grandparents had gone out dancing in South Dakota in the 1930s, there’s a good chance they would have been dancing to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Thelonious Monk is the best. But aside from “Round Midnight,” he didn’t really write the kind of songs you could sing. Or so I thought, until I found out about Carmen Sings Monk. It’s an entire album of Carmen McRae singing Monk tunes with lyrics by Jon Hendricks, Abbey Lincoln, and others. There are tunes here that you’d expect would work with lyrics (“Ruby My Dear,” “In Walked Bud”) and songs I never expected to hear sung (“Monk’s Dream,” “Pannonica.”) Carmen McRae was unquestionably the right woman for the job.
We want our daughter to grow up to be a strong feminist. So far, it looks like we don't have much to worry about. At eighteen months, this child has no problem exerting her will upon the world. She shoves larger children out of her way, grabs whatever she wants out of people’s hands, bites me hard when she thinks I'm paying insufficient attention to her, and generally behaves like she was raised by wolves.
Okay, maybe this is not the most obvious Paul Simon song to sing as a lullaby. Especially considering that he wrote several actual lullabies, for example, “St Judy’s Comet”. But “St Judy’s Comet” is twee and lame, and “You Can Call Me Al” is brilliant. Just sing it slow and mellow, I can assure you that it works.
I’m a child of the eighties, so I love Cyndi Lauper and her original recording of this tune. But Cassandra Wilson found a whole new layer of meaning with her gentle jazz version. She slows the tempo way down, lowers the key to match her smoky contralto, and builds up layers of dreamy acoustic guitar and e-bow.
The name on the label might be Don Byas’ Ree-Boppers, but the song is written and sung by Slim Gaillard. His main claim to fame outside of jazz circles is that he appears in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which is about the only good thing I can say about that book. Gaillard wrote a bunch of extremely strange songs, of which “Cement Mixer” is both the best known and most linear.
Naturally, you’ll want to sing this song slower for lullaby purposes. I recommend singing the synth parts too.
I have met David Byrne twice. The first time was randomly, in a museum. I was too starstruck to say anything intelligent, so I just complimented him on his outfit.
In my rock and roll days, I played lead guitar in a group called the Kimberly West Band. Kim’s rhythm guitarist later invited me to join his side band, the Daniel Cole Vanity Project. We mostly did Daniel’s originals, and this was one of our rare covers. I got to play the harmonica part, which was always a high point of the set for me.
This tune is a folk standard, and if you’ve ever been to Mommy and Me, you probably heard it there. It’s been recorded by folk singers approximately a thousand times. Jerry Garcia and David Grisman do an okay reggae version on their children’s album (link to previous post). But nothing can touch Elizabeth Cotten’s original recording.