This song is from American Songbag, a lengthy book of folk songs compiled by poet and activist Carl Sandburg and published in 1927. The piece is rather unfortunately titled “Jungle Mammy Song.” I prefer to call it simply, a lullaby. Sandburg’s inscription addresses the derogatory nature of the name and gives this background:
"Margaret Johnson of Augusta, Georgia, heard her mother sing this, year on year, as the mother had learned it from singing, year on year, of a negro woman who comforted children with it. The source of its language may be French, Creole, Cherokee, or mixed. The syllables are easy for singing; so is the tune. It may be, as provisionally titled, a Jungle Mammy Song, in the sense that all mothers are primitive and earthly even though civilized and celestial."
As someone who is interested in eighteenth-century music of the afro-diaspora, I was intrigued to think that this piece might have been several generations old in 1927. The archive of music of afro-descendents in the 17th through early 19th century is quite small, although there are many descriptions of enslaved and free people performing. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to imagine some of the music that we have descriptions of — how to perform it, even, so I was excited about this piece despite the fact that it is mediated through the memories of several generations, of a white woman and then a compiler, Sandburg, who tries but I think fails to rise above a mammy-stereotype in his description. The piece may not be the most historically accurate item, but it is still so much more sonically historically accurate than many other descriptions available to the early american imaginary. We must listen to what we can!
I learned it quickly, eager to feel it in my voice. Oddly, I found myself singing it in a somewhat classical style, although I more frequently sing with more of a country and/or blues flavor. I didn’t want to over-sing or heavily stylize the piece because I wanted to let it happen to me, and in so doing, this version came out. How does one approach musical performance historically? This is something for me to continue to research. In any case, I just wanted to experience the song and I can say it is lovely to sing — a perfect lullaby.
It doesn’t seem to me very French and in asking some friends who speak Kreyol, that doesn’t seem right either. I don’t know much about Gullah dialect or cherokee, but that seems possible. The final line, “Nico lav mah lundee” makes me think that perhaps “Nico” is the perspective of the singer and she “loves” her baby… “lundee?”
I teach girls ages 7-14 a singing class once a week at a local non-profit children’s theatre and I taught them this song. We had a lot of fun learning it and they came up with some great (and funny) ideas about what the song could mean. I love exploring historical and musical topics with children because they often come up with really interesting ideas and have such an open perspective on what things can mean, how we can describe what we hear. Some of the singers are Spanish speakers and they giggled at one of the lines that sounds like a curse word.
Exploring this song has led me to try to perform and sonify other extant music that may originated from my eras of focus. More to come!