Our Favourite Children’s Songs Are Really Messed Up

Ever really listen to the lyrics of your kids’ favourite songs?

One of my sons’ favourite songs is “You Are My Sunshine.”

It’s a classic - a perennial favourite amongst parents everywhere. Perhaps it’s the metaphorical comparison between lightness and the object of the singer’s affection (You are my sunshine). Perhaps it’s the seemingly positive message of hope offered in the chorus:

You make me happy when skies are grey.”

And what child doesn’t want to hear this proclamation of absolute adoration, almost desperate in its pronouncement:

You’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.”

Every child wants to hear that. A mother or father declaring their absolute love for their offspring - it’s a child’s dream, isn’t it?

Yet when we actually look at the full lyrics of this popular song, things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Check out the full lyrics here:

CHORUS:

You Are My Sunshine
My only sunshine.
You make me happy
When skies are grey.
You’ll never know, dear,
How much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away

The other night, dear,
As I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms.
When I awoke, dear,
I was mistaken
And I hung my head and cried.

REPEAT CHORUS

I’ll always love you
And make you happy
If you will only say the same
But if you leave me
To love another
You’ll regret it all some day;

REPEAT CHORUS

You told me once dear
You really loved me
And no one else could come between
But now you’ve left me
And love another
You have shattered all my dreams

REPEAT CHORUS

Louisiana my Louisiana
The place where I was born
White fields of cotton
Green fields of clover
The best fishing and long tall corn

REPEAT CHORUS

Hmmm…

Sounds like the tune is a spiteful ode to a possible cheater, with overtones of threats (“If you leave me to love another, you’ll regret it all someday”). Let’s also not discount the apparently unequivocal callousness of the person about whom the song is intended, as evidenced by this beauty of a verse:

“You told me once dear, you really loved me, that no one else could come between, but now you’ve left me and love another, you have shattered all my dreams.”

Doesn’t sound very happy to me…

Yet we sing the song unwittingly to our kids, often. At least I do. And I know I’m not alone.

Funny, when we dig just a little bit deeper in to many kids’ songs, we find out information that may not fit in with our ideas about what’s appropriate to share with our children…or not. “You Are My Sunshine” is a classic and sung numerous times daily, around the world. But how closely do we listen to the words that we blithely recite to our kids? Is it the fact that because these words are accompanied by a sweet tune, this fact alone may somehow negate the clearly unfavourable message that is being told?

You Are My Sunshine” is not the only seemingly innocuous song that has a darker side. Witness this classic - “Clementine” - which is about every parent’s worst fear: drowning.

“You Are My Sunshine” is not the only seemingly innocuous song that has a darker side. “Clementine” is about every parent’s worst fear: drowning.

In a cavern, in a canyon,
Excavating for a mine,
Lived a miner, forty-niner
And his daughter Clementine

CHORUS:

Oh my Darling, Oh my Darling,
Oh my Darling Clementine.
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Light she was and like a fairy,
And her shoes were number nine
Herring boxes without topses
Sandals weren’t for Clementine.

REPEAT CHORUS

Drove she ducklings to the water
Every morning just at nine,
Hit her foot against a splinter
Fell into the foaming brine.

REPEAT CHORUS

Ruby lips above the water,
Blowing bubbles soft and fine,
But alas, I was no swimmer,
So I lost my Clementine.

REPEAT CHORUS

How I missed her! How I missed her!
How I missed my Clementine,
Till I kissed her little sister,
And forgot my Clementine.

REPEAT CHORUS

Then the miner, forty-niner,
Soon began to peak and pine,
Thought he oughter join his daughter,
Now he’s with his Clementine.

Again - some questionable content.

So distraught is the author of this song about losing his beloved Clementine, that he promptly took solace in the arms of the dead girl’s little sister, which apparently made everything better.

Nice.

Now let’s move on to another classic children’s ditty - “Rock-a-Bye Baby.”

Rock-a-bye baby
On the tree top,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will fall baby
Cradle and all.

Am I the only one wondering who on earth puts their baby in a cradle on a treetop? The situation is precarious at best, tragic at worst and yes - of course - the bough will surely break in the event of a strong wind or two.
Neglectful parenting, child endangerment and possibly the charge of premeditated you-know-what is very real in this scenario. Yet we sing it to our kids without batting an eye.

 

What gives?

I’m not completely sure but here’s an idea:
Perhaps we’re so caught up in singing to our kids, trying to calm or soothe them, or entertain them for a moment that we can’t see the forest for the trees. These and many other songs (hello, “Ring-Around-The-Rosy“, about the bubonic plague) - so many of them - have been ingrained into our consciousness for as long as we can remember and we sing them without batting an eye.

We pride ourselves on being loving and forgiving to our children yet these words don’t sound like either:
But if you leave me
To love another
You’ll regret it all some day;

Threatening and ominous for sure - not the type of message that we usually want to send to our kids.

Now, granted - many of us don’t follow through to sing each and every verse to our children when we’re trying to soothe them or put them to sleep. For the most part, much of our singing includes repetition of the main chorus without much thought or time given to the more disturbing other verses. But do we not owe it to our kids - and ourselves - to at least know the full story and the intended background of these songs? Is it okay to blindly sing these tunes to our kids, relinquishing all responsibility for these songs’ content due to our willful ignorance?

I likely won’t stop singing “You Are My Sunshine” to my son but may shudder a bit inside every time I do so, now that the real intention behind the song is known. Ditto for “Clementine.” And “Rock-A-Bye Baby?” I’ve never been in support of ditching babies in trees…but that’s just me.

What do you think? Are these songs harmless or should parents play closer attention to the lyrics and intentions of popular children’s songs? Do you sing these songs to your kids? Leave me your thoughts in the comments section below.

VIDEO: You Are My Sunshine

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