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Rock-a-bye, babies

Lullabies and the little ones: A sleepy-time survey

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The notion of lulling a baby to sleep with gentle singing and soothing melodies is a sweet, romantic one — and these days, a profitable one as well.

Jim Deerhawk, director of Music for Little People, a children’s music company, says, ”The number of available lullaby recordings has increased at least three or four times in the last couple of years. An increasing number of independent record companies have entered the market because the demand for lullabies is very strong.”

Tim Ballingham of Earth Mother Productions, which has released a series of lullaby tapes, concurs: ”(Lullabies) are really doing better than ever. Nurturing, relaxing music is appealing to both kids and adults.”

As the father of a 4-month-old, I say, Right on, Tim dude. Ballingham speaks of the way lullabies create a ”caring atmosphere” that communicates to the baby that ”it’s safe to go to sleep.”

That’s nice. But, having played a batch of lullaby music at our house, let me add some realism to this discussion: Playing these tapes for our baby wasn’t a magical solution. Basically, if she was sleepy, she’d conk out; if she wasn’t, she would cry.

Which is not to say the tapes weren’t useful. They’re extremely effective in the car, where a screaming baby is difficult to soothe, and where the close quarters amplify the screams to the point where you’d like to do a little screaming yourself. Believe me, a nice, comforting lullaby on the tape deck combined with the rhythmic jostling of tires-over-pavement can make for a happier ride for everyone.

Now then. At home, it has been my experience that babies drop off faster and sleep deeper when there’s some low-volume sound in the room, such as a radio or TV turned down low. For example, until I was given a stack of these tapes to review, our preferred method was to slide the baby into her bassinet, switch on the public-television channel, and creep out of the room as quickly as possible.

Why public television? Well, its programming puts me to sleep most quickly, so why not the baby? Lullabies are fine, but there’s nothing more sleep-inducing than a documentary about fuzzy-wuzzy little animals or, best of all, one of those how-to-paint shows, with the murmuring instructor using his big, soft-bristled paintbrush to make light, rhythmic dabs on the canvas… wisk… wisk… wisk…

What? Oh, excuse me — I guess I dozed off there. Anyway, playing these lullaby tapes for our baby in place of public TV worked out just fine, with one big exception. Transitions is a tape of, well, let the jacket cover tell you: ”womb sounds with natural harmonies.”

This hour-long tape (released on the Placenta Music label, no less) offers whooshing, gurgling ocean sounds from the womb. (The womb of whom? The credits don’t say.) These noises are enhanced with trilling female voices harmonizing with slow nonsense syllables.

Sounds pretty sleep-inducing, doesn’t it? Well, let me tell you, you’ve never heard such screaming in your life: Our baby absolutely hated it. I mean furious, belligerent, red-faced, how-could-you-do-this-to-me? crying. I can only guess that the kid was so happy to be out in the world that the thought of returning to that dark old womb seemed terrifying. Or at least that’s how I tried to comfort my wife.

On these pages you’ll find a lullaby consumer guide. My criteria, obviously, were those of grown-ups: Babies are pretty indiscriminating, so parental guidance was applied. If neither my wife nor I could stand a particular tape — if it was too drippy or repetitive, or we just didn’t like the sound of the singer’s voice — it didn’t get played often.

Earth Mother Lullabies
(Earth Mother Productions; order through Music for Little People, 800-346-4445):
As the title suggests, there’s a certain dippy, hippie feeling to this tape. Singer Pamala Ballingham, performing for her husband’s label, OK? performs traditional lullabies from Japan, Russia, Ethiopia, Ireland, and Iceland, among other countries. She enunciates with exaggerated precision, as if she’s lecturing while singing. The effect is simultaneously spacey and stiff. C-

The Rock-a-Bye Collection
(Jaba Records/JTG of Nashville; 800-222-2584)
This makes Earth Mother Lullabies sound like Van Halen. There ought to be a difference between sleepy-time music and treacly Muzak. D

Lullabies for Little Dreamers
(CMS Records; 800-541-9904)
Kevin Roth is a moderately well-known folksinger and dulcimer player who has assembled a fine collection of lullaby standbys — ”Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” ”Hush, Little Baby,” that sort of thing. The delicate instrumentation makes this a particularly good effort. A

Sleepytime Serenade
(A Gentle Wind; 518-436-0391)
Linda Schrade sings these songs as if she’s trying out for a major-label debut as a singer-songwriter; she tries to turn every song into a personal confession. Trying to become the Joni Mitchell of kid’s music just doesn’t work when you’re emoting to lyrics from such songs as ”Kitty Alone” and ”Lullaby Firefly.” C

Transitions
(Placenta Music; 404-262-1559)
As mentioned earlier, not a big hit in our house. But think of this collection of ”womb sounds with natural harmonies” as a Brian Eno record for kids, minimalistic and somber. B

Lullaby Berceuse
(Oak Street Music; 204-957-0085)
One side of this tape offers lullabies in English, the other side, French ones; both sides are absolutely lovely. Singer Connie Kaldor has a deep, reedy voice that’s more interesting than that of most children’s music vocalists. She never sounds singsongy or sentimental, and her arrangement of the standard ”All Through the Night” is gravely gorgeous. From a parent’s point of view, it’s the tape you’ll tire of least — even after hearing it 2,000 times. A