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Beverly Beckham

In music and lyrics, a link from her childhood to theirs

Originally sung by Debbie Reynolds in 1957, “Tammy” serves as a reliable lullaby.

Originally sung by Debbie Reynolds in 1957, “Tammy” serves as a reliable lullaby.

They fall asleep to “Tammy.” It’s their lullaby of choice.

“Want me to sing you a song?” I ask whenever they are mine for a night and every one of them, every time, says, “Yes, Mimi. Will you sing ‘Tammy?’ ”

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It’s not your conventional going-to-sleep song. But it works as well for the 11-year-old as it does for the 11-month-old.

Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, you and I know,

Tammy, Tammy, can’t let him go.

I have been singing this, first to one grandchild, then to the next, for more than a decade. Other songs have come and gone. “Hush Little Baby, Don’t You Cry.” “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Even, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” But “Tammy?” It came and stayed.

Debbie Reynolds made the song famous in 1957. She sang it in the movie “Tammy and the Bachelor,” and it was nominated for an Academy Award that year. But it lost to Frank Sinatra’s “All the Way,” (which would make a great lullaby, too) from “The Joker Is Wild.”

The kids, of course, know nothing of this history. Nor do they know what a whip-poor-will is, or a bayou. (“The breeze from the bayou keeps murmuring low, Tammy, Tammy, you love him so.”) All they know is that they like the song.

I learned it when I was 10. My best friend, Rosemary, and I sang it all the time because we were obsessed with Debbie Reynolds. I sang the first half. She sang the second half. We practiced at recess, walking around the playground. We practiced at my house, upstairs in my room and at her house. One day we recorded it onto a big, reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Rose and I didn’t know about whip-poor-wills or bayous, either.

We sang “Tammy” at Symphony Hall that year, too. It was October 1957 and we were there with my parents for the Policeman’s Ball. Everyone was dressed up and dancing. And a few people were singing, too.

“You should sing ‘Tammy,’ ” my parents must have said because, all of a sudden there we were, up on the stage and the orchestra was playing and I went first.

“I hear the cottonwoods whisperin’ above, Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love,” and then Rose sang the “Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will” part, and then everyone was cheering and clapping.

And that was the end of “Tammy” for 40-plus years. Rose and I moved onto something else. Rosamond DuJardin books. Horror movies. Appian Way Pizza. (It came in a box, and we spent a season of Saturday afternoons trying to get the dough to rise.) That’s how we were. The next song I remember singing was Fabian’s “Turn Me Loose.” But that was a few years later.

“Tammy” reappeared out of the blue — and I suppose out of desperation — one day or night when all the swaddling and shushing and singing of baby songs weren’t getting the job done. Lucy was awake. And restless, and fidgety in my arms.

And then I sang “Tammy.” I don’t know why. I sang “Tammy” after singing, I’m sure, a dozen other songs, that old song so much a part of my childhood that maybe I wanted it to be a part of her’s, too. I sang my verse and then I sang Rosemary’s verse and then I sang my verse again and then Rosemary’s verse and the cadence of the words and the rhythm of the song, repeated again and again and again, calmed her and she fell asleep in my arms.

They all fall asleep to “Tammy,” though only one of them in my arms, now. He doesn’t request the song, he doesn’t have the words, but it works its magic on him, too. He pushes away his bottle. He stiffens his legs. He arches his back. And then the song begins and he begins to settle.

And in minutes, he’s asleep.

Beverly Beckham can be reached at beverlybeckham@me.com.
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