Many lullabies have a sad quality. Meant to be calming, they are often slow, soft, and written in minor keys. The lyrics, too, are often laced with darkness, fear, or loss. Here are some sad lullabies that, while meant to send a little one off to dreamland, often aren’t the happiest.
“Hush Little Baby” by Joan Baez
Song year: 1963
First up is “Hush Little Baby,” as sung by Joan Baez. Its lyrics revolve around a parent who tries to bribe their kid to be quiet by promising gifts. If something goes wrong with one gift, the parent promises to replace it with something else. And, if everything breaks, well, at least the baby is good.
Joan Baez brings her crystal clear tone and heart-breaking vibrato to this song about the impermanence of objects and the theme of disappointment.
“Rock-a-Bye Baby” by CoComelon
Song year: 2018
Even a bright and cheery rendition of “Rock-a-Bye Baby” by CoComelon isn’t enough to save the song from its devastating lyrics.
The song is about a baby in a cradle in a treetop. As the wind blows, the branches break, leading to the baby falling.
Many theories exist about the song’s origins, ranging from being based on a family who lived in trees in the 1700s to being a song made up in a pub as a death wish to the baby son of King James II.
Regardless, it's a sad lullaby with surprisingly somber lyrics. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, its popularity has endured for centuries.
“Baby Mine” by Bette Midler
Song year: 1988
If you’ve seen either the original animated or the live-action remake of Dumbo, you already know how sad this song can be.
Bette Midler’s version of “Baby Mine” appears on the Beaches soundtrack, and if you’ve never seen that movie, it is no less sad. Along with a slow, soft piano, Midler floats her vocals with control and is full of emotion.
The song is from the perspective of someone reassuring a bullied child of their worth and specialness. Its lyrics, written by Ned Washington, have a haunting quality that captures the special bond between a parent and child.
“You Are My Sunshine” by Johnny Cash
Song year: 2003
“You Are My Sunshine” has been sung by parents as a lullaby to their children or as an anytime-of-day proclamation of their love since being first published in the 1940s.
Surprisingly, “You Are My Sunshine” is about separation. The song's speaker has been left by their lover and is crushed. That context gives extra layers of sadness to this version as Johnny Cash only lived four months after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash.
“Frog Went a-Courting” by Bob Dylan
Song year: 1992
Another traditional song that traveled overseas to the American colonies, “Frog Went a-Courting’” has been speculated to be about François, Duke of Anjou's pursuit of Elizabeth I of England. While that theory has been dismissed due to date discrepancies, the lullaby nevertheless first appeared in England and Scotland around the 1500s.
Bob Dylan’s version is a lively folk song, with a darker ending than most interpretations.
It paints a fun and fantastic scene of a wedding between a frog and a mouse. However, things go south in the song when a cat crashes the event and eats the bride. Later, Froggie himself is gobbled up by a duck.
“Puff, the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul, and Mary
Song year: 1962
Peter, Paul, and Mary’s classic sad lullaby, “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” is about a boy who grows up and doesn’t need the things from childhood anymore, including his magical best friend.
Too many adults can’t just let children enjoy the imaginary friends they have now. Instead, there’s an unfortunate tendency for some to make kids feel guilty about not growing out of them.
“Oh My Darling Clementine” by The Sweptaways
Song year: 2010
The Swetaways, a Swedish women’s choir, recorded this beautiful version of “Oh My Darling Clementine” This deeply sad lullaby is a standard traditional kids' song about the daughter of a goldrush miner’s daughter who hit her foot, fell into the water, and drowned.
“Blackbird” by The Beatles
Song year: 1968
Some songs in this list aren’t traditional lullabies, but they are often used as such because they capture their sweet and sad vibe.
Paul McCartney was inspired to write “Blackbird” from the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the United States.
As the title suggests, the simple lyrics focus on a blackbird flying into the dead of night. The images in the song lend themselves to a lullaby interpretation, helped along by its calming melody.
“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” by Raffi
Song year: 2000
Raffi’s “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” like most other versions, is a gentle song full of wonder and possibility. However, the song’s lyrics suggest loneliness and uncertainty. The speaker of the lullaby is grateful for the stars, even if they don’t know what they are.
“The Fox” by Burl Ives
Song Year: 1945
Burl Ives's version of “The Fox” is a lively children’s song about animals. What makes “The Fox” a sad lullaby is that the lyrics detail the fox’s adventures stealing a goose and duck, throwing them over his back, and taking them home to eat.
“Moon River” by Frank Sinatra
Song year: 1964
Frank Sinatra croons “Moon River” in his inimitable swaggering style. That doesn’t change the fact that this song is about pining for a better life and getting out of the town or situation you’re stuck in.
“Rainbow Connection” by Sarah McLachlan
Song year: 2002
Originally sung by Kermit the Frog, Sarah McLachlan's “Rainbow Connection” dials up the sad lullaby energy. This wistful song wonders why people believe so hard in magic, rainbows, and wishing stars. It indulges in and doubts the fantasy at the same time.
“Pure Imagination” by Josh Groban
Song year: 2015
Josh Groban’s cover of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a lovely song, full of beautiful messages about using your imagination and living a life indulging in daydreams. The sadness in this escapist lullaby comes from the fact that while this is a great sentiment, imagination can only take you so far.
“A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” by Lily James
Song year: 2015
“A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” is another lullaby that is sweet on the surface. It talks about the power of dreams, but at its heart is a song about not having control in your life and wishing and dreaming and hoping things will improve.
“Danny Boy” by Celtic Woman
Song year: 2009
The classic “Danny Boy” is about hoping a child or someone who left home will come back alive and visit the speaker's grave.
A mournful ballad, “Danny Boy” was written in 1910 by the English lawyer Frederic Weatherly to the tune of the traditional Irish song “Londonderry Air.”
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole
Song year: 1990
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song from The Wizard of Oz, is a sad lullaby about wishing wonderful, magical things were real and could happen to you.
IZ’s famous version pares it down to ukulele and his sad, sweet otherworldly voice gives an extra yearning to the song.
“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” by The Wiggles
Song year: 2017
If you wonder how “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” could ever be considered sad, especially when sung by The Wiggles, you’ll need to think about the context.
While the song sounds like a lovely day spent canoeing on a small bit of water, it can also be seen as a metaphor for the shortness and meaninglessness of life.
“Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” by Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Allison Krauss
Song year: 2000
“Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” is a song with murky origins and various theories as to what it means.
What is evident in this sad lullaby is that the baby’s mother has left, and the father will take care of the little one he’s singing to as best he can. The overriding sentiment of the song is that they don’t need her anyway.
“All The Pretty Little Horses” by The Journey Men
Song year: 1963
“All the Pretty Little Horses” is a folk song of unclear origins. With Spanish-style guitar work and a haunting blend of melody and harmony, The Journey Men weave a spell out of this sad lullaby.
The lyrics focus on promising a child that if they go to sleep, they’ll wake up to pretty little horses, which the parent doesn’t have the means to deliver on.
“It’s Raining” by Peter, Paul, and Mary
Song year: 1962
“It’s Raining” is a medley of traditional sad lullabies and children’s songs, which includes “It’s Raining It’s Pouring” and “Ladybug, Ladybug Fly Away Home.”
The first is a song about an older man who seemingly gets a concussion and doesn’t wake up, and the second is a song telling a ladybug that her house has caught fire and her children are going to die.
“Highland Fairy Lullaby” by Kat Healy
Song year: 2016
The “Highland Fairy Lullaby” is a Scottish folk song. Kat Healy captures all the sorrow and confusion of the lyrics as she sings about a mother who puts her baby down to pick berries, only to find her child has vanished when she comes back.
“La La Lu” by Peggy Lee
Song year: 1955
This charming song from Lady and the Tramp by the incomparable Peggy Lee is not as sad as many of the others here.
Its lyrics are gentle and loving, but the mother is tucking her child to sleep, and there is sadness here that comes from her being unable to protect him while he’s in slumber.
“Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” by Billy Joel
Song year: 1994
In the song, the speaker is singing a lullaby to his daughter, and answering that the lullaby, and her remembering it, and singing it to her children, will mean that a piece of him will always live on in her.
Popular Sad Lullabies, Final Thoughts
Some sad lullabies weren’t meant to be lullabies. Over time, they were passed on from generation to generation, becoming songs people sang to their children to sleep without realizing the sadness.
There’s something inherently sad about putting a baby to sleep, something that makes parents feel a loss or the fear of loss. Maybe it’s that, more than anything else, that makes so many beautiful sad lullabies.