Sharing a father in Loudon Wainwright, it is, perhaps, not surprising that step-siblings Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche grew up with a wry, and at times perhaps perverse, perspective on the world. But maybe dad isn’t the only one to have shaped such sensibilities. Listening to ‘Songs in the Dark’ featuring bedtime lullabies sung to them by their respective mothers, Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roche, some penned by both them and dad, it’s a wonder they’re as well adjusted as they are.
Of course, like nursery rhymes, children’s lullabies, have always been deceptively sweet while nursing a darker side, often concerned with death. After all, doesn’t Rock A Bye-Baby end with the kid plummeting to earth, cradle and all!
Here, then, are a selection of the songs that shaped the sisters’ childhoods. Lulling you into a false sense of serenity, they open with a lilting, echoey vocal version of the Jimmie Rodgers evergreen Prairie Lullaby with campfire harmonica from Eloi Painchaud, but even here Joel Zifkin’s background violin has a slightly ominous edge.
Clearly keen to introduce the kids to the harsh realities and injustices of the world from an early age, they learned about homelessness and police persecution from the dreamy Hobo’s Lullaby, a song written by Goebel Reeves and popularised by Woody Guthrie.
A rather lovely reading of Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa featuring acoustic guitar and the duo’s harmonies gets you all snuggly and warm, and then, backed by Brad Albetta on organ, along comes one of dad’s ditties, Lullaby, the opening line of which is “Shut up and go to bed”, continuing with the tender observation of how he’s “sick and tired of all your sad stories”. Who else but Loudon would tell his daughter “do me a favour, don’t bitch in your sleep”?
Sticking with family, Kate’s Lullaby For A Doll (which appeared on the McGarrigle’s Odditties album) , banjo and piano join the voices and guitar for a waltzing crash course in growing up and “life and all its mysteries”, Martha (who sang backing on the version the McGarrigles recorded for the 1992 TV special Child of Mine: Songs to Our Children) sounding exactly like her late mother.
Then it’s the turn of Terre Roche’s Runs In The Family, the sisters’ harmonies soaring as Lucy sings her aunt’s song about problems being passed down through generations. The last of the family-penned numbers is Terre’s collaboration with brother-in-law Loudon on Screaming Issue, Zifkin’s violin backdropping the swooping vocals on a song (which first appeared on her dad’s I’m Alright album) written about how young Lucy wouldn’t stop crying.
Parents who have suffered similar nights will sympathise with both that and Rosalie Sorrels’s playful swaying Baby Rocking Medley on which Anna McGarrigle talks about how every culture has a hostile baby rocking song for end of tether parents to vent their frustration when the kid won’t stop howling, segueing into the delightful “this is the day we give babies away with half a pound of tea!”
If that isn’t enough to quiet them down, then why not try Long Lankin, Lucy taking lead and her cousins Lily and Sylvan providing harmonies on an acapella (save for some doomy bells) treatment of the traditional folk song about a false nurse and jealous man executed for murdering a baby and its mother.
There’s two other well known traditional tunes that also deal with death. The first is the tender hush-a-bye All The Pretty Little Horses, except this version adopts the original lyrics found in Alan Lomax’s book American Ballads and Folksongs about “a po’ lil lambie, de bees an’ de butterflies, peckin’ out its eyes, e po’ lil lambie cried, “Mammy!” (the song is reputed to have its origins in a slave too busy caring for her master’s child to look after her own). The other, the album closer, sees an unaccompanied Lucy revisiting the song mom used to croon to her, Go Tell Aunt Rhody.
Although credited to The Bothy Band, the lilting Do You Love An Apple? is also traditional, an Irish tune about a devoted woman putting up with her man’s disrespectful behaviour and which, on a trivia note, has also been recorded by Martha’s brother, Rufus.
The remaining numbers see the sisters in strummed acoustic folk blues mode for Townes Van Zandt’s Our Mother the Mountain, Cindy Walker’s jogalong cowboy country lullaby Dusty Skies and, just for an extra helping of childhood innocence shattering, Richard Thompson’s End of the Rainbow with its disillusioned observation that “there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow, there’s nothing to grow up for anymore”.
The final number here is actually an instrumental that sees the sisters take a back seat, ceding the spotlight to Martha’s aunt, Kate and Anna’s elder sister, Jane McGarrigle for Irving Berlin’s Russian Lullaby.
It’s not your average collection of lullabies (but then the Wainwrights aren’t your average family) and, while Martha may have tried it out on her own son, this is rather more for grown up ears. Invest in a copy for your next slumber party.
Review by: Mike Davies