Fatherhood · 10 June 2013 · Ian Malpass

Finding my singing voice

I am, it’s fair to say, not the world’s best singer. If the radio is loud enough in the car, and I’m alone, I might mangle a tune here or there. If I’m confident there’s no-one within earshot, I’ll make use of the forgiving acoustics of the bathroom and serenade the shampoo in the shower. But singing for others is just not going to happen; karaoke is my idea of crimson-shamed hell.

Which is why fatherhood was such a surprise, on the singing front. The idea that my songs could be considered pleasant to anyone was novel. Singing someone to sleep? I could only assume they would pass out to end our mutual suffering.

And yet, becoming a parent has a way of forcing you out of your comfort zone. In our case, Evie (our first child) was not a good sleeper. What worked was walking her around and singing to her. When I say “worked” I really mean “worked eventually”. My memories of the first weeks of her life are hazy, but filled with shambling, stumbling, staggering turns around the house, and constant singing.

A good lullaby—indeed any good folk song—tends to survive by its singability. Leave Nessun Dorma to the professionals—simple, memorable melodies and lyrics, with a limited, middle-of-the-road vocal range will see your song last as it’s sung around campfires, pub pianos, and, softly, by bedsides.

I started simply—I felt I could do Ten Green Bottles justice, and the repetitive nature seemed to help with lulling Evie to sleep. 99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall was sometimes substituted for variety, although it must be said few things felt as soul-crushing as reaching “no more bottles of beer on the wall” with sleep remaining still a distant possibility.

It turns out that falling asleep while walking and carrying a baby is possible, but undesirable. In the hopes of keeping myself awake, I searched for more mentally taxing fodder. With mastery of bottle-related songs under my belt, I moved on to Old MacDonald. With this, I had two versions: “Just A Minute” rules, wherein I would try to sing without repetition, hesitation, or deviation (you don’t realise how many animals say “roar” until you’re only allowed one), and “Memory”, which required me to recite all the animals (and their noises) that had gone so far with each new addition to the menagerie.

At this point there came something of a revelation: I was singing and someone was not only listening but was comforted by it.

As we moved from the grim-faced, determined, sing-at-all-costs, please-sleep-oh-god-please phase of the newborn into a more relaxed bedtime routine, I expanded my repertoire further. Songs from my own childhood—like A Windmill In Old Amsterdam—lyrics half-remembered and quickly Googled. For some reason I sang Scarborough Fair at one point and it worked so well I stuck with it.

But it’s true that children are creatures of habit, so you should choose your standards well: the songs you sing when they’re tiny are the ones you’ll be singing forever. Thinking to expose my children to the songs of home, but without actually thinking much about the lyrics, I decided to sing them The Lambton Worm, a song notable for being sung in the local Mackem dialect. It quickly became a firm favourite, but at some point they’re going to ask what “bairn” means, and I’ll have to explain that I’ve been singing them to sleep with a song about a monster that eats babies. But it’s been four years now, and I’ve been saved so far by the fact that sleep curtails curiosity.

The most common songs have worn grooves into my memory such that I can sing them on autopilot now, my subconscious working the singing muscles while the rest of my brain takes a break. This can backfire, such as the time when I came to with the realisation that I was singing some PHP code I’d been thinking about. I’m also adept at singing myself to sleep, much to the annoyance of the kids who will occasionally poke me awake with a vexed “daddy, you’re not singing”.

I’m still not the world’s best singer, but for a small, really important audience, I’ve found my singing voice.