“My aunt came back / From old Algiers / And she brought with her / A pair of shears.”
“Can you make shears with your fingers? Shears means scissors,” I say, showing the actions to a children’s song at playgroup. My listeners are expat tots and preschoolers from several countries. Most are two years old — pre-air-snipping age, really — but my four-year-old requested the song, called “My Aunt Came Back.” I try “Eentsy Weentsy Spider” next with mixed results. “The Alphabet Song” works better.
The session gets me thinking about which songs I have sung with my daughter and when. In her third or fourth day of life I created a short melody I sang at bedtimes, sometimes inserting variations or combining with “Hush, Little Baby,” “The Ants Go Marching,” or “Put Your Little Foot” (and chin, and cheeks, and toes, till she nodded off).
Her early toddlerhood brought intense study of Wee Sing: Children’s Songs and Fingerplays, the butterscotch 1984 version. I remember the two of us rehearsing “Hickory Dickory Dock” and “Bumblebee Was in the Barn” and sticking out our tongues at the end of “Little Green Frog,” then dissolving in giggles.
A bit later we explored the Reader’s Digest Children’s Songbook — circa 1985, also butterscotch — and memorized the locations of “The Little White Duck,” “Three Little Fishies,” “Rubber Duckie” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I recall scrambling to improvise new lyrics to “Ha, Ha, This-a-Way” (did it always say “Papa went and left me, to save my soul”?) and plinking out the “thumpety thump-thump” chorus in “Frosty the Snow Man” on the piano.
Then there were two Japanese “song picture books,” their glossy pages containing four dozen well known, whimsically illustrated Japanese children’s songs with the melodies notated, which helped me learn the songs my husband grew up with. I sight-sang about a magic pocket that produces cookies when tapped, and bunnies who hop by moonlight, and a pair of hapless goats who exchange letters only to eat them before reading them. I learned to sing new holiday songs, including one about flying kites and spinning tops on Oshogatsu, New Year’s, and another about displaying traditional dolls on Hinamatsuri, Girls’ Day, March 3 (ours sit ready this week on the piano, helping us celebrate our daughters).
Along the way I found some songs that had crossed borders, or had in a sense: “Do Re Mi” in Japanese says “doh” is for “donuts” and “le” is for “lemons”; “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” talks about railroad tracks but not workers and has no “fee-fi, fiddle-e-i, o” section. My family found a number of Japanese and English songs that had different lyrics but the same melodies: “Lightly Row” hums like “Chocho,” a song about a butterfly, and “Where is Thumbkin” hums like “Gu, choki, pah,” a song about making hand creatures. “Yankee Doodle” has the same melody as a clapping chant about “way up in the Japanese Alps.”
Our period of exploring Japanese and American kids’ songs brought opportunities to learn from neighbors in Thailand as well. Thai nannies, secretaries, store clerks, and waiters taught our daughter to sing “Chahng, Chahng, Chahng” about an elephant, and “Gahp, Gahp, Gahp” about a duck swimming in a canal. Each November Thais helped our daughter launch a hand-decorated float on a swimming pool and sing “Loy, Loy Krathong.” Among expats we encountered new versions of songs we thought we knew: “Eentsy-Weentsy Spider” became “Itsy-Bitsy Spider”; “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” turned out to have an alternate melody. A Scottish father at playgroup described a whole new section of “The Hokey-Pokey.”
At some point, as play and learning options multiplied, Mommy’s role as human iPod began to fade. CDs provided more of the daily playlist: One Light One Sun at naptime, Beethoven’s Wig or Hayao Miyazaki film songs in the car. Our four-year-old still snuggles up to hear me sing Ladybug magazine song pages or the theme song of a picture book character called Gyozaru-kun (Gyoza Boy).
Meanwhile, the baby has me lullaby-ing again, with her own short made-up melody and a down-tempo “Tingalayo” whose lyrics I confuse late at night (“me donkey sleep with a knife and fork”?). The baby holds, and gnaws, a rubber duckie, so I am starting to rehearse its theme song at bathtime: not “Rubber Duckie, you’re so fine” before the bridge, but “Rubber Duckie, joy of joys!” In addition, my husband and I will introduce “Happy Hinamatsuri” for the baby’s first Girl’s Day this week, and it is only a matter of time until a Thai introduces “Chahng, Chahng” or a British CD marketed here teaches her the “other” melody to “Hickory Dickory Dock.”
I have to marvel at how many songs the girls bring into our lives — a number augmented by their multiple cultures. With songs, “more” has never meant “too much” or “confusing,” only more to enjoy.
And yet the amount of music belies the few themes to which many of the songs return. Nature: bumblebees and frogs; elephants; in Japan a dragonfly whose “glasses” reflect the sky. Bodies: hands that open and close like lotus flowers at one age, produce Thumbkin at another, and air-snip at another. Objects: forks and knives, eggs, futon.
The music does, in every language, what it does even for the prelingual: help the day go by and at the same time slow it down, make it magical. Getting to see this done in ways so endlessly varied, yet similar, is a part of parenting across cultures that gives me hope for the world awaiting the girls. I want to send them into it with as many songs as I can.