Ines, Woody, and I, and “I don’t need no man”

Like with most children, Ines has a bedtime routine. It includes a bath battle—or a 20-to-30-minute struggle to corral and channel her toward the bathtub or shower. Once there, she is fine, and usually doesn’t want to get out, which then requires denying her access to the water source—draining the bath or turning off the shower. After bathing, everything settles down just as all the kid experts predict. Yes, bathing has a soothing effect, at least for the child.

Finally settled and made bed-ready, Ines expects to be read to until she is on the cusp of sleep—that could happen at any point between one to a dozen books but usually four of five does the trick. It has been like this since she was born, or so it seems, and I suspect it is similar for many parents.

Our routine doesn’t end there, however. In fact, on those nights that I tuck her into bed, turn on the sound machine, and shut off the lights, I have to sing to Ines. It is this part of the routine that I never expected to happen and that will remain with me forever. I hope it is this part Ines remembers forever, too.

Before I go on, I have one disclaimer: I am not a singer. I know I cannot sing well. The adage that “he can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” was written about me when I was a child and used to walk around carrying an empty bucket and singing. I knew it then, and I had people telling me as much, like my elementary music teacher. He stopped my 5th grade class mid-rehearsal for the Christmas pageant to tell me to stop singing. “Just move your lips,” he said, “and don’t try to sing.” I did as instructed, and never sang again until Ines was born.

Beginning with her first night, Ines and I have spent many a night awake, hours at a time, often just staring at each other, me trying to soothe her, and she determined not to give up the day. At first she was colic and then just incorrigible. So, I began to sing to her that first night, softly in the hospital room, lullabies I thought I knew but quickly realized I didn’t. I realized that I knew some lines and could hum the rest, sort of. I also made up lullabies, most of which invariably included the words, Ines, finest, feet, sweet. This part of our nightly routine has never changed. It has, however, evolved into something more meaningful.

During those first few months, when Ines was nursing multiple times a night, Beverly and I would lay in bed together as Ines nursed. I would search the Internet for lyrics to folk music we could sing to her (Lullabies can only take you so far.). We were surprised to learn how often the lyrics sang and taught to kids didn’t match the original versions. For example, Big Rock Candy Mountain and This Land is Your Land underwent sanitization between the time they were written and when they became part of school curriculum and our collective memories.

It happened one day, however, after Ines had moved to her own bed, and nights often became multi-hour slogs toward sleep, I heard Richard Hawley’s version of Woody Guthrie’s Who’s Going to Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet on the radio. Hawley’s version instantly caught my attention. No doubt, in part, it was his baritone voice and purposeful cadence, but mostly the lyrics rang true and immediate. I thought of Ines.

When I got home, I looked up Woody’s lyrics. Woody actually gave credit where credit was due. His version was an adaptation of a folk song that appears to have evolved from other folk songs the 30 years prior to his rendition. And, of course, ever since Woody recorded his adaptation, other versions have popped up over the past 50 years. Hawley’s might be the most recent, but Woody’s is the one I prefer.

The song became the Ruby Red Lips song, as my transference of red and ruby stuck and now just sounds right. It eclipsed You Are My Sunshine as our song, and in time, my efforts to alternate between Sunshine and Ruby Red Lips was met with the directive, “No, sing Ruby Red Lips.” There were nights when I would sing it for an hour straight while leaning over her crib patting her back. And, now there are nights when I get up and take her to the bathroom and then have to sing her back to sleep. We have agreed, however, that I only have to sing the song one time after going to the bathroom.

Ruby Red Lips is our song. This was confirmed recently when Ines began to sing it back to me. I thought she was asleep, and when I paused, she picked up where I left off. When that happened it was as if an Angel from God has descended to affirm the significance of this nightly routine now ritual. I often think about the lyrics throughout the day and hear them coming out of Ines’s mouth.

For me, the first, second, and third verses—which are a series of question followed by direct, concrete answers—are reminiscent of scripture, a beatitude for father-daughter relationships (assuming a father is singing to his daughter) that moves from revealing a daughter’s complete dependency on her father to her proclaiming self-determination. By verse three, the daughter is a strong, independent woman. She “don’t need no man,” father or otherwise. Isn’t that what every father hopes for, to see his daughter grow into this woman? It sounds basic, but for that to happen much of what the world takes for granted must be transgressed by the father and the daughter, just as the scriptural beatitudes require that we transgress worldly temporality to achieve blessed blissfulness.

Those first three verses in Woody Guthrie’s adaptation read:

Who’s gonna shoe your pretty little feet?
Who’s gonna glove your hand?
Who’s gonna kiss your red ruby lips?
Who’s gonna be your man?

Papa’s gonna shoe my pretty little feet,
Mama’s gonna glove my hand,
Sister’s gonna kiss my red ruby lips,
I don’t need no man.

I don’t need no man,
I don’t need no man,
Sister’s gonna kiss my red ruby lips,
I don’t need no man.

More modern versions of the song substitute your for my in verse two and leave out entirely verse three or substitute You for I. These revisions suggest that the father’s is the only voice. Woody, in what I claim is an act of feminist subversion, has the daughter speaking, beginning in verse 2 as the my and continuing with the last line and the entirety of verse 3 as I. She is responding to her father’s questions of verse one and reaching a crescendo in the repetition of “I don’t need no man.” Verses six, seven and eight are the same.

Significant, too, is the daughter response that it will be her sister who will kiss her “red ruby lips.” It would be too much to think that this line suggests more than it does. Therefore, I take sister’s literally because the papa’s and mama’s that precede it appear clear in their meaning. Still, the “red ruby lips” image is inspiring for what it suggests about self-determination and who can kiss whom on the lips and who decides that. Clearly, it left some artists uncomfortable. The Browns’ adaptation from the 1950s changed red ruby lips to red rosy cheeks.

Similarly, the middle verses, verses four and five, suggest the potentiality of female strength. Here it is not the father and daughter interacting, but I assume, a grown man telling others of lost love. The woman left the narrator on the fastest train he knew, suggesting she knew what she wanted and didn’t hesitate to go (the original, “you go girl”). I like to think the woman on the train is the daughter who told her father that she “don’t need no man.” The sentiment stayed with her into adulthood. I hope it stays with Ines, too.

I know I won’t be singing Ines to sleep much longer—a year, maybe two years more, if I’m lucky. She either will decide she is much too big to be tucked in that way or that I can’t sing, or both. And, of course, one song by itself isn’t going to cultivate a way of being in the world. But when Ines sings, “I don’t need no man,” to me, I am heartened by the person she is becoming. It is not that I don’t want her to grow up and find love with whomever she pleases—I do—but I want her to do it on her own terms. She might very well want someone’s love and even need it but it should never be just a man; it should be someone whose identify is much more than that to her. After all, there is nothing a man by mere bent of being a man can offer her. However, I like to think and act as if there is much a father should offer, even one who can’t sing.

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