Ma's Got a Lullaby For You, Baby

Published November 2, 2015 in Episode 28

There is perhaps no sweeter sound than a mother’s lullaby. The soothing voice reveals her devotion to her crying child. But the soft melody belies lyrics bursting with ache: She sings of an autumn wind blowing in the early hours of morning hours and switches from referring to herself as “mom” to “em” the way a wife refers to herself.

“I miss you,” she tells her absent husband. “Don’t cry,” she tells her baby.

“The husband is out for whatever reason. He’s at work, he’s at war. So it’s not just all just sunshine and roses all the time,” says Jason Nguyễn, a PhD student of ethnomusicology at Indiana University.

He says lullabies are as much for the parent as they are for the child: “It needs to put parent into calm state as much as put the child in a calm state, so the things will also cover a lot of lessons  and observations and contemplations just about daily life. From the reflections on work and on family, or even the expressions between mother and child, maybe even sometimes the mother and father of the child.”

Lullabies vary in musical scale across Việt Nam’s regions, Nguyễn explains. As they are often a melodic expression of folk poetry, or ca dao, they take on the traditional Vietnamese verse form called lục bát or sixth-eighth: verses that alternate between lines of six and lines of eight syllables.  

“[In] the Northern ones you can see a lot influence from Northern Vietnamese poetry singing from genres like ca trù, which is kind of like really high art poetry singing or quan họ, folk singing,” Nguyễn explains. “It follows, basically, the scales that you might expect from some of those genres. The scale that you see is basically a pentatonic scale. That scale goes do re fa so la.”

Rather than recounting daily life, this lullaby from the North weaves a fantastical tale and a history lesson about Vietnam’s famed female warriors and sisters Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị.

My child, sleep well,
So mom can carry water to wash the elephant’s back
If anyone wants to see, go up the mountain
To see the Trưng, Triệu sisters riding the elephant’s golden backs

In the South, lullabies reflect the region’s penchant for cãi lương or Vietnamese opera.

Nguyễn says they pull from southern genres like cãi lương. “Rather than going do re fa so la, it goes do mi fa so la and really focuses on fa a lot, that note. So it really focuses on those notes, having that mi come in, which is a lot like cãi lương,” he says.

Vì dầu cầu ván đóng đinh,
Cầu tre lắc lẻo. gầp gềnh khó đi.
Khó đi mẹ giắc con đi
Con đi trường học
Con đi trường học, mẹ đi trường đời.
Chiều chiều dịch lội cỏ bây
Ông doi bẻ mía chại ngang vô rừng
Vô rưng bức một sợi mây
Đem về thắc vổng cho nàng

In the South, the verses usually begin with a refrain: Imagine a bridge of boards fastened with nails.

The lullaby continues: The rough bamboo wiggles, making it hard to walk. Mom will take you by the hand. As you go to school to learn, I attend the school of life.

The singer’s baby may be too young to know what the school of hard knocks is about yet. And she might even soon forget all about her first lessons in music, but when she grows up and has a child of her own, it's then that somehow, these forgotten lullabies come back to life.