Several lullabies are sung in America and ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’ is one of them. The song has not faded away unlike other folk lullabies that have lost over time. In this modern age, while there are numerous options to lull a child to sleep, a mother still feels to sing this song to make her child sleep. Due to this reason, the song hasn’t lost its significance. However, a lullaby or cradle song is a soothing song (becomes more soothing when a mother sings it for her child), that is usually played for children.
Summary of All the Pretty Little Horses
In this traditional lullaby, ‘Hush-a-bye’, a mother tells her child not to cry and to go to sleep. If she sleeps right then, she will get “all the pretty little horses” when she wakes up. Thereafter, the mother tells her child that she will get all the horses she wants to have. By repeating the first two lines, she assures her child about the probability of fulfillment of her wish in the morning.
Like other nursery rhymes or songs played for children, ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’ is simple in meaning. In this traditional lullaby, a mother sings a baby to sleep and promises her child that, when she wakes up, the child “shall have all the pretty little horses.” Apart from that, the alternative title of the poem, ‘Hush-a-bye’ is an archaic exclamation. Mothers say this phrase to lull a child. This expression is found in some other lullabies as well. However, there is an extra verse that appears in some versions of the song. In that additional verse, the mother refers to a poor child whose mother is absent to cajole her. But, that baby is not alone at all. There are birds and butterflies to lull her.
This song consists of two stanzas. The stanzas are repeated while singing. Whatsoever, the additional verse has six lines whereas the first two verses have five lines. There is not any specific rhyme scheme in this poem. There is only a single instance in the second stanza where rhyming appears. It appears in the first two lines of this stanza. Moreover, in the third verse, the fourth and fifth lines rhyme together. Though there is not a specific rhyme scheme in this song, it is not unrhythmic at all. The internal rhythm of the lines maintains the flow of this song.
In this lullaby, ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’, the songwriter uses several alliterations to create an internal rhythm. As an example, in the first line of verse one, the vowel sound “ai” gets repeated in the words, “bye” and “cry”. Thereafter, in the second line of this verse, “Go to sleepy, little baby,” the “i” sound gets repeated. Moreover, in the title, “All the Pretty Little Horses”, readers can get an idea where the alliteration is used to create a resonance of the “t” sound in the neighboring words. It’s in “pretty little”. Apart from that, the title contains another literary device called hyperbole. In the second verse, the reference to the horses’ colors contains a metaphor. Whereas, in the third verse, the word “flutter” contains an onomatopoeia.
Analysis of All the Pretty Little Horses
Hush you bye, Don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy, little baby.
when you wake,
You shall have,
all the pretty little horses.
This analysis is centered on the version of the song available in Dorothy Scarborough’s “On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs” published in 1925. Some versions of this lullaby appear on pages 145-148 of this book. By keeping the subtleties of a variety of versions aside, the analysis deals with the essence of this song.
In verse one of ‘Hush-a-bye’, the speaker is a mother or a caretaker of a child. The child is crying and doesn’t want to sleep. So the mother lulls the child and tells him not to cry. Thereafter, she tells her little child to go to sleep. Readers can imagine an image of a mother adoring her crying child to sleep.
Children in general desire gifts if they obey their parents’ advice or order. Here, the mother assures her child that when she wakes up the child will have “all the pretty little horses.” In this scenario, the child likes horses. The gift can be different for other babies according to their likings.
Blacks and Bays,
dapples and grays,
Coach and six a little horses.
Hush-a-by, Don’t you cry,
Go to sleep, my little baby.
In the second verse of ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’, the speaker refers to the horses by their colors. She tells the child that she will get black horses, bay horses, dappled horses, and gray horses when she wakes up. It seems that the child has not gone to sleep yet. For this reason, she increases the number of gifts and specifically mentions the number of horses the child will get. It gives the child a direction to imagine. Hence, the mother says tomorrow the child will have a coach and six little horses to play with.
At the end of this verse, there is a refrain of the first two lines of verse one. In traditional lullabies, such refrains are used to create a rhythm. Moreover, it is used to emphasize the idea of the lines. Here, the main idea is about not crying and going to sleep.
Way down yonder
In the meadow
Poor little baby crying momma
Birds and the butterflies
Flutter ’round his eyes
Poor little baby crying momma.
In the additional verse of this lullaby, the speaker refers to a “poor little baby” who is crying for the absence of her “momma”. The child lives way down from that place in the meadow. Birds and butterflies flutter around the child’s eyes while he cries. It seems that the poor baby’s mother is out at work. Being poor, the child doesn’t have the luxury of having his mother by his side all the time. Whereas, the baby who has her mother singing her to sleep, should not disobey her mother. As she has the most precious gift in comparison to all the horses that she is about to get in the morning.
In this way, the songwriter creates a contrast between the privileged class and the unprivileged class. The tone of the poem is sympathetic towards the poor mothers and their children.
In “Art and Design in Children’s Books” by Lyn Ellen Lacy it is mentioned that ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’ was “originally sung by an African American slave who could not take care of her baby because she was too busy taking care of her master’s child.” Some versions of this lullaby contain added lyrics that make this statement true (probably). In Alan Lomax’s “American Ballads and Folksongs“, there is a version of the song that contains a reference to the slaves who were often separated from their families to serve their owners. Moreover, Dorothy Scarborough’s research on this folk song reveals that the variations of the song were provided by African-Americans directly or indirectly.
Similar Nursery Rhymes
Here is a list of songs that are similar to ‘Hush-a-bye’, a popular children’s song.
- Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, a Nursery Rhyme – In this poem, there is also a reference to slavery.
- Lullaby by W.H. Auden – This song describes the love that one has for his beloved. It’s one of the best-known poems by Auden.
- A Cradle Song by William Blake – It’s one of the best William Blake poems. This lullaby is a simple song of a mother who enjoys her baby’s restful sound and expressions.
- O Sleep, My Babe by Sara Coleridge – The speaker of this poem addresses an infant and her future.
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