When my daughter was a baby, and I began singing her lullabies, I was startled at the cruelty of some of the lyrics. In particular, I was disturbed by “Rock-a-bye baby,” in which an infant is being rocked in a cradle in a tree, and then when the branch breaks, down goes the poor helpless baby. Ouch!
But as the nights went on, and I became increasingly sleep deprived, and the late night awakenings showed no sign of letting up, I found myself theorizing that those cruel lyrics were composed by some frustrated mother at her wits end, imagining various scenarios that might stop her baby from crying, since clearly soothing lullabies were not doing the trick.
Then, just in time, my daughter began to sleep through the night, and I ceased thinking about lullabies and their sinister undertones. Until, that is, on solstice night this year I pulled the “Five of Trees” card from the “Shining Tribe” tarot deck.
The card depicts a cityscape at night, with a cozy cradle nestled in a tall tree. The accompanying text explains that this represents “a great tree where future shamans rest in cradles. Sometimes this tree exists in dreams of the spirit world.” The text also suggests that this may be the origin of the lullaby lyrics, “Rock-a-bye baby in the treetop, when the wind blows, the cradle will rock.”
I liked this interpretation, though I can find no confirmation of it as a viable theory.
According to Wikipedia there is no clearly agreed upon origin for that particular lullaby, only that it first appeared in print in about 1765, in “Mother Goose’s Melodies.” Some say the song refers to a family of 10 who lived in a yew tree in Derbyshire England. Another theory is that it is a song about how James the VII came by his son … apparently the baby was spirited into the birthing chamber because James couldn’t produce a Roman Catholic heir the traditional way. In this version the song is an allegory of sorts, with the wind representing the Protestant forces blowing in and the cradle representing the royal house of Stuart, etc. That all seems unlikely to me. A different interpretation has it that the song is American and is based on Native American women rocking their babies to sleep in birch bark cradles.
But I prefer the notion that the song refers to little baby shamans being nestled into the branches of a protecting tree. By the way, according to the “Shining Tribe” interpretation, in the original song, the bough did not break; a much kinder version for us dreamers.