When Cilla Black sang Liverpool Lullaby in 1969, she was more famous than the Beatles, 23, with her own TV show. She stands on the TV stage, in her high fashion mini-skirt, and forces us to disbelieve our eyes. She uses all the word-weighing power of the storyteller to pull us deep into the story of her song.
Somehow she convinces us, for 3 minutes, that we’re hearing a penniless mother soothing her young son to sleep while she waits for her husband to come home, late again, from the boozer.
One question: is it the 5th word – mucky – that switches off your eyes and turns on your ears?
Liverpool Lullaby is one of the most poignant expressions of conflicted love I’ve ever heard. To me, the heart-breaking moment comes at about 2.40, when you see past and future, hope and disappointment crash together in the line oh you have your father’s face.
Cilla has walked us towards that line, carefully building up a picture of a woman brimming with love for her son, enduring an alcoholic husband and dreaming of a better future. She does it slowly and subtly, with tiny hints that we read clearly.
If you sing in English, or any other language, it’s worth watching the video as a masterclass in communication. Remember, everything about Cilla’s reputation and appearance pull her audience away from imagining her as a downtrodden, impoverished woman.
Mucky, sung in her Liverpool accent, begins the process. the glamour begins to fade from our minds – the Liverpool accent is associated with docks, hard work and hard lives. Words like dustbin lid help to keep the song domestic. They’re like the once upon a time of a storyteller. We’re ready to pay attention. She leads us through the story of an invented life and we believe her.
Liverpool Lullaby is based on the Sandgate Dandling Song, written in 1830 by the blind Newcastle musician Robert Nunn. In Nunn’s song (a ‘dandling’ song was a song you sang to a baby while you dandled it on your knee) the husband is more brutalised by drink. There’s a version of Nunn’s song here.
Some of the words are specific to Liverpool and specific to the UK in the 1960s. Here’s the crib sheet: Littlewoods – the football pools where a fortune was, supposedly, available to all, the Lune – an industrial-scale laundry, Knotty Ash – a ‘nice’ area of Liverpool, strawberry jam tats – a tat is a tangle or a knot of hair
Sandgate, in Newcastle, was home to the keelmen, a close-knit circle of men who knew the secret ways to negotiate the shipwrecks and shifting sandbanks of the shallow River Tyne in their wide, flat-bottomed boats, to carry coal to sailing ships waiting impatiently in deeper water. Their skill was passed down from father to son.
Loading and unloading coal was thirsty, dusty work. The keelmen were forced, against their will, to accept a proportion of their wages as ‘can-money’ – vouchers for alcohol that could only be redeemed at their employer’s over-priced ‘can-house.’ So the heavy drinking that was rife among the keelmen, and passed down from father to son, had a complicated background.
When Stan Kelly updated Robert Nunn’s song and moved it to Liverpool, he kept the complications, but downplayed the overt violence of the father.
Cilla’s song is the song of a woman trapped (remember, the first safe house for women fleeing domestic violence in the UK wasn’t opened until 1971 and the first in Liverpool in 1973). It’s the song of a woman trying to re-organise the realities of her life in her head so that she can keep going. A woman using black humour as she includes her husband in the bright family future she imagines, once they’ve won the pools: we’ll … buy your dad a brewery.
If you watch Cilla’s face you can see a whole history of emotions pass across it. She sings the words to Liverpool Lullaby quite ‘straight’, as you might sing to a child, not wanting to worry them, nor to set them against their father, but wanting to paint a hopeful future for them all.
Would it have worked if she’d sung Liverpool Lullaby as a depressing dirge or an angry rant at the missing father? Or is it the juxtaposition of the lilting melody with the glum reality contained in the words that give the song its human truth?
In the end, it’s a song about love.
© Sing Better English, 2015