All the Pretty Little Horses

2. All the Little Horses Pansy Richardson, Mobile, July 10, 1947

Hush a bye little baby.
When you wake you’ll have a little cake
And all belong to the baby. Hush little baby, don’t you cry.
Hush a bye little baby.
When you wake you’ll have a little cake
And all belong to the baby. All them horses in pa’s window
All belong to the baby.
Hush little baby, don’t you cry
Hush a bye little baby. Go to sleepy little baby.

Under various titles—"Go To Sleepy" and "All the Pretty Little Horses" are common—this song is one of the most widely collected lullabies in American folksong. It is a favorite among African American singers and is well know to popular audiences through folksong recordings and collections.

The song employs common functional elements of lullabies, promising pleasant rewards to an infant "when you wake" in order to "lull" the infant to sleep. Moreover, the particular way lullabies solicit the cooperation of the infant is taken as a marker of deeply-held values that shape an individual's self-concept beginning in infancy.

Bess Lomax Hawes (1974) has examined the "when you wake" formula in this song, concluding that on the surface, it seem to contain a bribe, a promise of a reward for good behavior. But on closer examination it is revealed as a simple prediction: "When you wake, you shall have...." This future-orientation distinguishes "Pretty Little Horses" from other American lullabies, which are generally "expressed in present tense and filled with descriptive terms about the surroundings and the activities of various people" (p146).

Other characteristics distinctive for this song involve the spatial isolation of the baby. Most American lullabies situate the sleep-induced baby elsewhere:

"All the people around him in song are actually somewhere else—shaking dreamland trees, gone hunting, out watching sheep, or what have you. Baby, meanwhile, is up in a tree, or sailing off in a boat made out of the moon, or driving away with his "pretty little horses." When he does sleep, he is described as being in a place called "dreamland" which, wherever it is, clearly isn't his own bed; and he is variously requested or ordered to take himself to that "land of Nod" by the linguistic convention that requires English speakers to "go to sleep." Even the most widespread choice of a lulling nonsense syllable takes the form of a spatial metaphor: "bye bye," after all, means both "sleep" and "farewell." (p146)

Hawes believes that in this respect, lullabies form part of the bedrock of American individualism. "If we want independent children," she says, "we must thrust them away from us, and, equally importantly, we must thrust ourselves away from them." As a ritual act, then, lullabies shape the consciousness not so much of the infant as of the caretaker. They are "a mother's conversation with herself about separation" (p148).

But "Pretty Little Horses" does not stress separation. The reason, other researchers have noted, have to do with its connection with African American slavery. In this, the song embodies a cruel irony: slave caretakers comforting the masters' babies with assurances of their material privileges. Scarborough (1925:144-47) observed the song sung specifically for that purpose. The version in Harris's Uncle Remus books begins, "Mammy went away—she tol' me ter stay, an take good keer er the baby" (1892:213-14). And some variants, such as the one that appeared in the Lomaxes' collection, American Ballads and Folksongs (1934:204-5; also in Scarborough 1925:147), contain a mysterious, heartrending stanza, "Way down yonder; In de medder; There's a po' little lambie," which is taken by some to refer to a second baby, a slave baby neglected while the caretaker tends to the master's children (Singer 2001:8). "De bees an' de butterflies; Peckin' out its eyes," the verse continues, "De po' lil thing cried, "Mammy!"