Bob Davis

Keynote 4

Silence, Sirens and Sleep: The Experience of Lullabies

Bob Davis

The lullaby is a near universal musical and literary form indelibly linked with infancy and early childhood that has so far received only limited attention from literary researchers and theoreticians. This lecture offers a series of critical reflections on the experience of the lullaby in order better to understand the genre’s varied cultural meanings and the complex psychodynamics of creation and reception, inscription and erasure, silence and noise, on which these rest. The subtle relationship between singer and listener in the iconic lullaby performance embraces the intimate psychoacoustic spaces of the parent-child bond, the shifting interactions of sound and sense, the musical, paraverbal and vocal characteristics of a song expressly crafted to induce the silence of sleep, and the wider social anxieties associated with domestic vulnerability and gender identity.

The lecture hence gives due weight to the standard view of anthropologists and folklorists that lullabies are to be interpreted primarily as the anonymous worksongs of those charged with the care of infants. It also argues, however, that older functional accounts of the lullaby have paid inadequate attention to the liminal features of the lullaby experience: to the places where, for example, the habitual erasure of women’s authorship and performance is contested, such as the great corpus of medieval lullaby carols; or the uses of lullabies which tacitly acknowledge that silence may be an ever-receding horizon obscured by the inescapable clamour of household, community and culture. These elements are frequently imprinted and communicated in the conflicted content of the lullabies themselves—in the responses of babies and young children to the repeated lullaby event, and in the hypnagogic condition of reception that the singing and transmission of lullabies stimulate in infant listeners as they are initiated by exposure to them into language, tradition and song.

By examining a selection of popular lullabies, the lecture seeks to foreground issues rarely examined in the study of the lullaby—such as the lullaby’s ambivalent relationship to sleep and its troubled fortunes as a carrier of ethnic and national belonging. The lecture concludes by looking briefly at the implications for the lullaby experience of the form’s more recent commodification as the object of entertainment or, indeed, scholarly enquiry. It speculates about the implications for the lullaby form when it is appropriated as art song and love song in the classical or popular repertoire, and when it is experienced and re-experienced in radically altered contexts of production and consumption linked uniquely to modern, digital concepts of composition, recording and listening.

Biographical information

Bob Davis is professor of Religious and Cultural Education at University of Glasgow in Scotland. Bob Davis’s interests range widely across the domains of literature, cultural studies, anthropology, religion, the Philosophy of Education and Childhood Studies. He has taught, written and broadcast widely on the history of childhood, infant education and the intercultural representation of children and childhood in diverse contexts and media. His biography of Robert Owen and the New Lanark project captured many of these themes and he has continued to pursue research into constructions of babyhood, infancy and education from the early modern period onwards. His interests in lullabies has spanned the ethnographic, literary and musical appreciation of lullabies as an integral and near universal feature of childhood and child care. He is completing a major study of the English Lullaby, from the early medieval to contemporary forms. Davis has also been Editor of Journal of Philosophy of Education since 2010.

Picture of Bob Davis
Photo: Gillian Davis