“All the Pretty Little Horses” is an American folk lullaby. Most people know this song by its iconic first verse:
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry
Go to sleep little baby
When you wake
You shall have
all the pretty little horses
Blacks and bays, dapples and greys,
Coach and six little horses.
These words, and the hypnotic melody accompanying them, conjure a warm, tender scene– a mother rocking her baby to sleep. Like so many lullabies, the song feels soothing but also melancholy, owing to its minor key.
But in this song, there’s more behind the melancholy. A lesser known second verse sheds some light on the song’s history.
Way down yonder
In the meadow
Poor little baby crying Momma
The birds and the butterflies
Flutter round his eyes
Scares the poor baby cryin’ Momma
The second verse dates back to the times of the American slavery. The song, it is believed, reflects the perspective of an enslaved woman, who is being forced to care for the master’s child, while her own child is left to fend for itself. As she sings, she describes how her own child must be missing her.
This story speaks powerfully to me as a parent. It describes the worst heartache I can imagine, to be forcibly separated from my children. It also poses an interesting challenge for me in the interpretation. To share the history of the second verse in class as it’s written above doesn’t feel right to me in a class, given that it refers to fear and separation. At the same time, this history is so important, and speaks so strongly to us as caregivers that I’ve wanted to share it. Just so that we can all remember the heartache that oppression causes and remember to treat all with love and respect.