Three Slave Lullabies

Bye-o-baby! Go sleepy!
My Little Colored Chile
Go To Sleepy/All the Pretty Little Horses
Other Songs From The Slave Narratives


Mom Louisa Brown of Waverly Hills, S.C., remembered that everyone would make up songs to help the children on the plantation fall asleep, and everyone had their own song that they sang. This is one that she shared:

Go sleepy!
Go sleepy!
What a big alligator
Coming to catch
The one boy!
Diss here the Watson boy child!
Bye-o-baby go sleepy!
What a big alligator Coming to catch this one boy!

"My Little Colored Chile"

Katie Sutton, of Evansville, Indiana, described her mother's experience of motherhood as one of tension between public and private duties. "When I was a little gal," Katie Sutton recalled, "I lived with my mother in an old log cabin. My mammy was good to me but she had to spend so much time at humoring the white babies and taking care of them that she hardly ever got to even sing her own babies to sleep." The song that Katie Sutton remembered tells a simply drawn yet resonant story of life in the master's house compared to life in the slave's cabin. The song grew out of a legend that the plantation's white women told the slave children, that a white stork brought white babies, but slave babies were hatched from the eggs of buzzards, or vultures, a bird laden with significance in African American folklore. No tune has been found for this poignant lyric.

"A Slave Mammy's Lullaby" (title supplied by interviewer)

A snow white stork flew down from the sky,
Rock a bye, my baby bye;
To take a baby gal so fair,
To young missus, waitin there;
When all was quiet as a mouse,
In ole massa's big fine house.

Dat little gal was borned rich an free.
She's de sap from out a sugah tree;
But you are jes as sweet to me;
My little colored chile.
Jes lay yo head upon my bres;
An res, an res, an res, an res,
My little colored chile.

To a cabin in a woodland drear,
You've come by a mammy's heart to cheer;
In this ole slave's cabin.
Your hands my heart strings grabbin;
Jes lay your head upon my bres,
Jes snuggle an res an res,
My little colored chile. (Repeat refrain)

Yo daddy ploughs ole massa's corn.
Yo mammy does the cooking;
She'll give dinner to her hungry chile,
When nobody is a looking;
Don't be ashamed, my chile, I beg,
Case you was hatched from a bussard's egg,
My little colored chile. (Repeat refrain)

"Go to Sleepy"

Here are three versions of this song, which appears in the white folk music tradition as "All the Pretty Little Horses."

Annie Little, who was born into slavery in Missouri in 1856 and raised on a Mississippi plantation, had 10 children and sang them all to sleep with this haunting song of comfort and abandonment:

Mammy went'way - she tell me to stay,
And take good care of de baby.
She tell me to stay and sing disaway.
O, go to sleepy, li'l baby.

O shut you eye and don't you cry,
Go to sleepy, li'l baby.
'Cause mammy's boun' to come bime-by.
O, go to sleepy, li'l baby.

We'll stop up de cracks and sew up de seams,
De booger man never shall cotch you.
O, go to sleep and dream sweet dreams,
De booger men never shall cotch you.

De river run wide, de river run deep,
O, bye-o, sweet li'l baby.
Dat boat rock slow, she'll rock you to sleep,
O, bye-o, sweet li'l baby.

Chorus: O, go to sleepy, sleepy, li'l baby.
'Cause when you wake, you'll git some cake,
And ride a li'l white hossy.
O, de li'l butterfly, he stole some pie,
Go to sleepy, li'l baby.
And flew so high till he put out his eye,
O, go to sleepy, li'l baby.

Laura M. Cromartie's
, version of this lullaby promises the sleepy baby the enjoyment of material goods, rather than the safety pledged in Annie Little's song:

Hush a by an'don't you cry,
An'go to sleep, little baby;
When you wake you shall have some cake
An'ride a pretty little horsey.

You shall have a little canoe
An'a little bit of a paddle;
You shall have a little red mule
An'a little bitty saddle.

The black an'the bay, the sorrel an'the grey,
All belong to my baby.
So hush a by an'don't you cry
An'go to sleep, little baby.

Joanna Thompson Isom, born just before the Civil War on a Mississippi plantation, told this story: "I hav' been midwife, an' nuss, an' washerwoman; when I wuz little my granny taught me some ole, ole slave songs dat she sed had been used to sing babies to sleep ever since she wuz a chile. I used to sing dis one:

Little black sheep, where's yo lam'
Way down yonder in de meado'
The bees an'de butterflies
A-peckin'out hiz eyes
The poor little black sheep
Cry Ma-a-a-my."

Compiled by

Judith Tick
Senior Research Analyst, Feminist Sexual Ethics Project

Melissa J. de Graaf
Research Analyst, Feminist Sexual Ethics Project