Any new parent with a fussy baby is likely familiar with the five S’s of soothing: swaddling, side position, shushing, swinging, and sucking. As a new mom to a six-month-old, I’d like to add one more “S” – Singing!
As I scrambled to adjust to a new normal in the first weeks of motherhood, a friend offered comforting words as I began to negotiate the trials of postpartum life. She reassured me, “Remember, ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’ was written by a mother.” I had never considered the lullaby’s history before, but I kept thinking back to her comment as my husband and I sang the tune to our baby, or as we heard the melody play on baby toys. It was only a matter of time before I took my interest to our collections and pursued my favorite pastime – research!
The lyrics and melody were not born at the same time; the words were initially published in Mother Goose’s Melody, printed by John Newbery in London around 1765. Several reprints of Mother Goose’s Melody were published in subsequent decades, primarily in and around Boston. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century that the song “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” as we know it, was composed, and we have New Englander Effie I. Canning to thank for her famous melody. Piecing together Canning’s biography and the story of “Rock-a-Bye Baby” proves difficult when reading conflicting articles and interviews from newspaper archives. In fact, a document from the Music Division’s Subject File reveals research that a music librarian compiled in 1941 in an attempt to determine Canning’s age at the time of her death. Canning’s recollection of the song was published in the Daily Boston Globe on January 9, 1938. According to the composer, Effie Crockett was around 15 years old when her family visited Winthrop, Massachusetts. While reading on a piazza, she noticed a baby fussing after his mother had set him down in a hammock. In an attempt to soothe the baby, Crockett improvised a melody while singing words she recalled from a book of Mother Goose rhymes.
Crockett took the tune to her banjo teacher; impressed with the lullaby, he connected her with a Boston publisher who took a strong liking to the song. According to most articles, the teenager feared that her father would not approve of her publishing music, so she used her grandmother’s name and published the song under the name Effie I. Canning; however, an article published in The Baltimore Sun on May 28, 1939 offers a different personal account where the composer explains, “I always liked that name Canning…I wasn’t much impressed with the song, you see, and I didn’t want it traced to me if it didn’t fare well.” The publisher Charles D. Blake published “Rock-a-Bye Baby” in 1886, only after he arranged for playwright Denman Thompson to use the song in the kitchen scene of his new play, The Old Homestead. The sheet music sales reached about $20,000 within a few months. The Library of Congress holds a manuscript copy of the lyrics to “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” supposedly in the hand of Canning. The manuscript was gifted to the Music Division in 1937 by Elliott Shapiro of Shapiro, Bernstein Co., the music publisher who came to hold the copyright to the song. As you read the lyrics, listen along to a 1921 recording of American opera singer Merle Alcock singing the famous lullaby:
Canning was a stage actress who toured with William Gillette in The Private Secretary and acted in a touring production of Oliver Twist. She married a fellow stage actor, Harry J. Carlton; in researching her, it is necessary to search the names “Effie I. Crockett,” “Effie I. Canning,” and “Effie C. Carlton.” Effie stopped acting after her husband passed away in 1922.
The copyright for “Rock-a-Bye Baby” was renewed twice; however, when the original publisher died and business control transferred hands, renewal was neglected and copyright lapsed. In 1939, Massachusetts Congressmen took up the cause of extending copyright on her song, for Canning apparently received few royalties for the song even before copyright lapsed. In the aforementioned article from The Baltimore Sun, Canning was quoted observing, “The law says the composer must get a royalty every time a number’s played. But they use ‘Rock-a-Bye’ in the movies without credit, one of the radio hours always used it to introduce a comedian, and friends bring me slightly changed copies of the music without even the composer’s name on it.” Impoverished, she died in 1940 of a cerebral hemorrhage in a Boston hospital; according to newspapers, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) covered the cost of her hospital room.
So was “Rock-a-Bye Baby” written by a mother? Obituaries confirm that Effie Canning never had any children, but who actually wrote the words? Remember, John Newbery printed the poem in Mother Goose’s Melody around 1765. Newbery’s publication popularized French folktales as English nursery rhymes (Charles Perrault published Contes de ma mère l’oye in 1697; the Library holds a reproduction of the book’s manuscript with accompanying critical text, digitized and available from HathiTrust); Newbery did not write the rhymes himself. Some believe that authorship may lead back to Bertrada II of Laon, mother of Charlemagne and known by nicknames such as “Queen Goosefoot” (likely due to a foot issue). Who actually penned the lyrics to “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” we will never know. But despite Effie I. Canning’s issues with rights and royalties, newspapers do document her appreciation for the widespread popularity of her song. She heard mothers sing the lullaby to their babies while walking through parks, heard Minnie Mouse sing it in a movie, and was seemingly aware of the song’s lasting status in pop culture. I’ll keep singing the lullaby to my own daughter, ready to tell her its backstory if ever she asks one day. But first, we need some sleep!