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“Rock Me to Sleep”

There was organ music by itself, organ music with Pa’s fiddle, and organ music with the singing of quartets and duets and solos. Mrs. Bradley sang… Laura could hardly bear the sadness of it… — Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 19, “TheWhirl of Gaiety”

The lyrics to “Rock Me to Sleep” were first a poem written in 1859 by Elizabeth Akers Allen (Florence Percy) and sent by her from Rome to the Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia. It was set to music by several composers and became a popular song of the 1860s.

Elizabeth Ann Chase was born 1832 in Maine, and was said to have published her first poem at age 15. She took a job working on the Portland Transcript in the 1850s and published her first book of poetry in 1856 under the pseudonym Florence Percy. With money earned from the book, she traveled Europe. Chase was married three times: an early marriage ending in divorce, to Benjamin Akers, who died the year after they were married, and then to Elijah M. Allen. She published a volume of poetry called Poems in 1866, using her own name. It included “Rock Me to Sleep,” which remained her best known poem. She died in New York in 1911.

It isn’t known which melody Mrs. Bradley sang in De Smet, but all versions were moving and solemn. Ernest Leslie (1862) wrote music to the poem, as did George Frederick Root (1861), George Poulton, and John Hill Hewitt (1861). Hattie Suffron was born in 1858 in Greene County, Wisconsin, the daughter of Rev. James Suffron; she married George C. Bradley in 1878. The Bradleys came to De Smet in 1880 and Mr. Bradley ran a drug store. It was supposedly Mrs. Bradley’s organ that was borrowed for both church services and literaries.


Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight,
Make me a child again just for tonight!
Mother, come back from the echoless shore,
Take me again to your heart as of yore;
Kiss from my forehead the furrows of care,
Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair;
Over my slumbers your loving watch keep-
Rock me to sleep, mother, rock me to sleep!

Backward, flow backward, O tide of the years!
I am so weary of toil and of tears,
Toil without recompense, tears all in vain,
Take them, and give me my childhood again!
I have grown weary of dust and decay,
Weary of flinging my soul-wealth away;
Weary of sowing for others to reap-
Rock me to sleep, mother, rock me to sleep!

Tired of the hollow, the base, the untrue,
Mother, O mother, my heart calls for you!
Many a summer the grass has grown green,
Blossomed and faded, our faces between:
Yet, with strong yearning and passionate pain,
Long I tonight for your presence again.
Come from the silence so long and so deep-
Rock me to sleep, mother, rock me to sleep!

Over my heard, in the days that are flown,
No love like mother-love ever has shown;
No other worship abides and endures,
Faithful, unselfish, and patient like yours.
None like a mother can charm away pain
From the sick soul and the world-weary brain.
Slumber’s soft calms o’er my heavy lids creep-
Rock me to sleep, mother, rock me to sleep!

Come, let your brown hair, just lighted with gold,
Fall on your shoulders again as of old;
Let it drop over my forehead tonight,
Shading my faint eyes away from the light;
For with its sunny-edged shadows once more
Haply will throng the sweet visions of yore;
Lovingly, softly, its bright billows sweep-
Rock me to sleep, mother, rock me to sleep!

Mother, dear mother, the years have been long
Since I last listened your lullaby song:
Sing, then, and unto my soul it shall seem
Womanhood’s years have been only a dream.
Clasped to your heart in a loving embrace,
With your light lashes just sweeping my face,
Never hereafter to wake or to weep-
Rock me to sleep, mother, rock me to sleep!

(from Little Town on the Prairie)

Backward, turn backward,
Oh Time in thy flight.
Make me a child again,
Just for tonight.

CLICK HERE to listen.



Click on the above images to view a copy of original sheet music for “Rock Me to Sleep.”

This music is archived in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library of Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708-0185 USA.. The Historic American Sheet Music Program provides access to music published in the United States between 1850 and 1920.    


“Rock Me to Sleep” (LTP 19)
     “Backward, turn backward, Oh time in thy flight”