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Poet Tracks Lullabies and What Makes them Work

December 29, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ Marlon Cain Hill, 21 months old, has no intention of going to sleep.

His aunt, Deloris McCullough, resorts to singing a lullaby she learned from her mother in her native Waynesboro, Ga.

″Go to sleep little baby, go to sleep,″ she sings as Marlon’s chin begins to drop. ″Sleep before those ducks come and pick out those baby’s eyes.″

Removed from the soft, lulling voice, the lyrics appear violent.

But Julia Lebentritt, who has spent the last four years tracking lullabies in New York City, says harsh lyrics are a characteristic of many lullabies.

Ms. Lebentritt is trying to find out what parents sing to put children to sleep and what makes a lullaby effective.

She has found songs in English, Ukranian, Chinese, Italian, Danish, Hungarian, Spanish, Yiddish and other languages.

″In all cultures you find the same themes. It’s a very universal tradition,″ Ms. Lebentritt said.

Those themes include hope for the future, love and trust, as well as loneliness, homesickness and violence.

One mother made up her own ″Lullabye, My Eye″ to the tune of ″Frere Jacques:″

″Beating babies with a blackjack is such fun, is such fun. How I love to beat them, how I love to thrash them, yum, yum, yum.″

Lullaby singers, often worn out from a long day, ″are not fresh to do a performance″ and instead focus on their own frustrations, Ms. Lebentritt said. ″The lyrics can be about the worst things. The child is lulled by the melody and the voice.″

A poet and former high school literature teacher, Ms. Lebentritt, 45, collected more than 20 of the songs onto a cassette tape and is planning a traveling exhibit on lullabies in conjunction with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

Ms. Lebentritt also found some peculiar traditions in trying to put a child to sleep.

In Chinatown, for example, parents with a particularly restless child will sometimes write a poem and hang it on a lamppost. The poem is a prayer, and each person that reads it is believed to be transmitting it to God.

One such poem read:

″God of Heaven

″God of Earth

″My house has a baby who is crying all night

″If people who pass by read this once

″Then my baby will sleep ’til the morning light.

Ms. Lebentritt has found that the most popular lullaby in the United States is ″Silent Night.″

″People use ‘Silent Night’ as a lullaby at all times of the year because they don’t know any other songs,″ she said.

In trying to catalogue the ones that work, Ms. Lebentritt has a more earthly concern at the moment: ″What I haven’t been able to find is how punk musicians put a child to sleep.″