I can only assume this flagrantly homicidal gem of a lullaby has escaped notoriety primarily because everyone who’s ever heard it falls asleep before the most incriminating verses are aired. Whether the (one might say) druggedly soothing little ditty is responsible for any violent sadistic strains lapping at your subconscious is, of course, for you to decide, but perhaps you’d benefit from a good breakdown of all the evidence.
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,
Mama’s going to buy you a mockingbird.
If that mockingbird won’t sing,
Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring.
If that diamond ring turns brass,
Mama’s going to buy you a looking glass.
If that looking glass gets broke,
Mama’s going to buy you a billy goat.
If that billy goat won’t pull,
Mama’s going to buy you a cart and bull.
If that cart and bull turn over,
Mama’s going to buy you a dog named Rover.
If that dog named Rover won’t bark,
Mama’s going to buy you a horse and cart.
If that horse and cart fall down,
You’ll still be the sweetest little boy in town
//Hush Little Baby, Don’t say a Word//
Well, right off we can scratch the idea that this is a song intended for babies. Babies cry, they don’t use words. Mama doesn’t say “don’t cry,” “don’t yell”, or “don’t be obnoxious.” She very specifically calls for her child to not speak.
//Mama’s Gonna Buy You a Mockingbird//
Presents are usually the one occasion when you expect and delight in a child’s being noisy. Birthdays, Christmas, whatever – any normal parent with a video camera to set up wouldn’t think twice about capturing a permanent record of those delirious squeals. But THIS Mama wants her kid to shut up and accept, not just any present, but a PET – a bird, and a bird famous for incessant vocalizations at that. There can be no doubt after this that Mama’s motive is something other than peace and quiet. Mama’s use of the future tense is particularly striking; why tell a child about an extravagant present ahead of time, after you’ve just finished saying “hush”? This whole setup smacks of bribery; Mama isn’t asking for a momentary reprieve from chaos. She’s clearly trying to buy her tot’s permanent silence.
//If the mockingbird won’t sing…mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.//
Again, isn’t it odd how favorably Mama regards the prospect of the child’s pet making noise? It sounds as though the bird’s noise-making abilities are its central draw; a silent bird apparently has no value and must be replaced with a more extravagant gift. Putting aside for the moment the disturbing implication that Mama would regard a living animal as disposable in the event that it doesn’t behave as she would like it to, we ought to consider what sort of heavy silence she is trying to avoid in the first place. Something is not being said, cannot be said, and Mama is doing all she can to smother that eery quiet with the promise of a song. Additionally, it must hereafter be noted that Mama is totally loaded. Mockingbirds ain’t cheap, and diamond rings even less so, but it is Mama’s persistent faith in the power of luxury goods to buy her child’s silence that speaks the most to her lust for material riches.
//If that diamond ring turns brass, Mama’s gonna buy you a looking glass.//
There is nothing blatantly incriminating in this line. But there’s a hinted fondness to illusion, here – perhaps even subtle manipulation. Diamond rings don’t turn brass, so either Mama never had the diamond to begin with or she’s able to mask its value. Either way, the effect is to convey to the child-subject that a gift in the hand – even one of everlasting stone – isn’t beyond the powers of the universe to tweak, change, and ultimately destroy. A pattern has emerged wherein Mama’s gifts lose value even before they are had. It is as though Mama is using gifts less as a means of expressing affection than of favor – and she wants her kid to remember, what has been given can be taken.
As if to reinforce that message, the next proffered gift is a simple looking-glass. An ordinary mirror, in such sharp contrast to the elaborate expense of a diamond or the exotic delight of a mockingbird, it’s hard to imagine it NOT being intended on a symbolic level. A mirror, should the diamond prove not good enough to hold the child’s tongue – a calculated invitation to reflect on one’s own value.
//If that looking glass gets broke, Mama’s gonna buy you a billy goat.//
Now we come to the first overt appeal to violence. If the looking glass mysteriously “gets broke”, are we expected to believe the child is in danger? It can’t have been an accident, can it, if Mama’s singing about it so long before it’s happened, and it can’t have been the child’s fault, or Mama wouldn’t return with yet another expensive gift. Does anyone else notice just how many steps ahead this Mama is thinking?
//If that billy goat won’t pull, Mama’s gonna buy you a cart and bull//
We return again to the noted ease with which Mama can cast off living creatures as worthless when they don’t behave as she would like them to. More sinister yet is the answer to an obvious question – what use does a child have for a billy-goat? According to Mama, the goat’s purpose is to…pull. We can assume the very wealthy kid isn’t working in a field. Beasts of burden trained to pull have been used as torture devices. It doesn’t sound like Mama’s bribing anymore.
//If that cart and bull turn over,//
Holy shit – this bitch ain’t fuckin around! She’s gone from sly allusions to torture to the prophesying of a much more sizeable calamity. Any injury caused the bull in this scenario is, of course, mere collateral damage – anything to send a message. And just in case the kid thinks he’s getting off the hook in the event he manages to survive a cart-and-bull collision –
//Mama’s gonna buy you a dog named Rover
If that dog named Rover won’t bark//
Any dog named Rover – which would indicate any dog of feral (or at least stray) origin. And Mama wants him to bark. Who wants an untrained, barking dog for a child’s companion? Torture artists, that’s who. And if that fails to garner the brat’s allegiance –
//Mama’s gonna buy you a horse and cart
If that horse and cart fall down,
You’ll still be the sweetest little boy in town//
In case you missed the point earlier, little baby – your Mama wants you dead. A leisurely-moving bull-and-cart crash may leave you wounded, but a horse and cart that falls down (down where? Off a bridge, into a ravine?) – well, there are no survivors from disasters of that magnitude. But you’ll still be the sweetest little boy in town. Because you won’t be spilling any secrets.
Looking at all the evidence, it’s clear that Mama married up, to a wealthy old man who produced just one descendent – the small child who’s lone witness to his father’s vicious murder inspired the tranquil melody and insidious lyrics inexplicably beloved by mothers all around the world.
Case regretfully closed.