February 22, 2023

Sleep My Little Bird

By Gordon Lockwood

Gordon Lockwood, Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter recording session

I try to avoid the ascription “traditional” when it comes to song authorship. The term’s passive voice has an ugly history of erasing the work of artists, especially women artists. In this case, it will have to suffice, with apologies. This song has been sung by many. My frame of reference is the recording by the Malavsky Family Choir, featuring the great Goldie Malavsky (1923-1995).

While the song presents as a lullaby, pioneering Yiddish song maven Ruth Rubin suggested that the song can also be read as a love ballad, sung from the perspective of a young mother or a nurse maid. The verses tell a fairy tale (albeit a somber one) for the benefit of the baby falling asleep. The chorus, with its visceral declamation of the singer’s wound, points towards another meaning. The quiet time rocking the little one to sleep provides space for memory of a lost love, and the story of the dead king and the bereft queen offers an allegory of a love affair left in ruins.

Sleep My Little Bird

Once upon a time, begins the story.
The story is not a happy one.
The story begins
With a Jewish king.

The king had a queen,
The queen had a vineyard,
In the vineyard there was a little tree.
Sleep, my child.

Sleep, my little bird.
Sleep, my child.
I have lost such a love,
Oh, my pain and woundedness.

The little tree had a little branch,
On the little branch was a little nest,
In the little nest there lived a little bird.
Sleep, my child.

The king is dead,
The queen is bereft,
The little tree is broken,
The little bird flew away.

Where can I find a wise man
Who can reckon the number of the stars?
Where can I find a doctor
Who can heal this heart of mine?

Sleep, my little bird.
Sleep, my child.
I have lost such a love,
Oh, my pain and woundedness.

Malavsky Family Choir record featuring “Sleep My Little Bird”

ליולינקע מײַן פֿייגעלע‎

אַ מאָל איז געװען אַ מעשה
די מעשה איז גאָרניט פֿרײלעך
עס הײבט זיך אָן
.מיט אַ ייִדישן מלך

דער מלך האָט געהאַט אַ מלכּה
די מלכּה האָט געהאַט אַ װײַנגאַרטן
,אין װײַנגאַרטן איז געװען אַ בײמעלע
.ליולינקע מײַן קינד

ליולינקע מײַן פֿייגעלע‎
ליולינקע מײַן קינד
,כ׳האָב אָנגעװױרן אַזאַ לייִבע
.װײ איז מיר און װינד

,דאָס בײמעלע האָט געהאַט אַ צװײַגעלע
,אױפֿן צװײַגעלע איז געװען אַ נעסטעלע
אין נעסטעלע האָט געלעבט אַ פֿײגעלע
.ליולינקע מײַן קינד

,דער מלך איז אָפּגעשטאָרבן
,די מלכּה איז געװאָרן פֿאַרדאָרבן
,דאָס צװײַגעלע איז אָפּגעבראָכן
.דאָס פֿײגעלע פֿון נעסט אַנטלױפֿן

װוּ נעמט מען אַזאַ חכם
?ער זאָל קענען די שטערן צײלן
,װוּ נעמט מען אַזאַ דאָקטער
?ער זאָל קענען מײַן האַרץ הײלן

ליולינקע מײַן פֿייגעלע‎
ליולינקע מײַן קינד
,כ׳האָב אָנגעװױרן אַזאַ לייִבע
.װײ איז מיר און װינד


Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter
Ballads from the Yiddish Gothic

Songs arranged by Jeremiah Lockwood
Performed by Gordon Lockwood
Jeremiah Lockwood, guitar and voice
Ricky Gordon, drums

Recorded and mixed by Dan Shatzky at Vibromonk Studios
Maspeth, Queens

Filmed and edited by Alex López

Assistant camera operator: Hector Leandro Gonzalez

Special thanks to Itzik Gottesman
The Yiddish Song of the Week

a project of
The Dream Past Productions
Ayin Press

Jeremiah Lockwood is a scholar and musician working in the fields of Jewish studies, performance studies, and ethnomusicology. He is the founder of the band The Sway Machinery and is currently a Yale Institute of Sacred Music Fellow. His work engages with issues arising from peering into the archive and imagining the power of “lost” forms of expression to articulate keenly felt needs in the present.

Ricky Gordon is a drummer, percussionist, composer, actor, and social activist. He has performed and recorded with a host of musicians including Wynton Marsalis, Carolina Slim, Public Enemy, Hubert Sumlin, Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, The Allman Brothers Band, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and The Fraternal Order of the Society Blues. Some of Gordon’s acting credits include HBO’s Treme and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, and School Daze. He recently worked on the Jon Batiste production American Symphony, which premiered at Carnegie Hall.