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  • Songs By and For Children: A Legacy of Children's Music
    Cover Story
    Songs By and For Children: A Legacy of Children's Music
    by Pat Campbell

Children's music has been a Folkways priority from the inception of the label. Founding father Moses Asch sought to build a library of children's records that was intelligent, playful, and inventive, seeking out adult artist-musicians as well as children who could be recorded singing with enthusiasm and verve. He distinguished his children's recordings from Hollywood-type "kiddie music"—that sweet and sugary mid-century sound of Disney's Dumbo, Snow White, and The Lady and the Tramp. The Folkways sound of children's music, in contrast, required no lush orchestrations: all that was necessary was the straight-ahead sound of singing voices, with or without a fundamental chording instrument such as a folksinger's guitar or a schoolteacher's oom-pah piano. In achieving Folkways' goal to develop "a catalogue of folk expression," an archive of "sounds of the world," how could music by and for children not be included?

Children rarely can resist making music in their everyday lives. When they hear live or recorded music, they step, sway, skip, and bounce to it. They need no special invitation to sing, either, and they do it alone, together, as they play, and along with the recordings they enjoy. Because no one has told children that they can't do music, they behave musically as a natural part of who they are, an essential quality of their well-being. Like feeling warm, fed, and well rested, they make music because they must. Children are the embodiment of music, and the Folkways collection has always chronicled their musical interests while also enticing them to join in the songs of adult artist-musicians on record.

Within the archived recordings of Smithsonian Folkways is an encyclopedic array of material meant just for children. Songs, chanted rhymes, instrumental music, and folk tales fill the stacks.

Many Folkways albums feature children's songs that have lasted for centuries, like "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" (or its Spanish-language corollary, "El Puente de Aviñón"). Some songs are inventive variations of older ones, such as "Loop de Loo," a re-design by rural Alabama children of the British play-party standard, "Looby Loo." There are also songs to accompany children's chasing games: "El Lobo" features MexicanSharing Cultures with Ella Jenkins children singing (and screaming) with excitement about a wolf who prepares to chase and capture them for his meal ( el lobo aparece a todos nos comerá). The slapping sound of the jump rope is audible in some selections, when children rhythmically chant to the lore they have created, as in "Benjamin Franklin went to France to teach the ladies how to dance." Likewise, the rhythm of clapping hands can be heard alongside children's voices on chants like "Who took the cookie from the cookie jar?" Thanks to Moses Asch's recognition of the fieldwork efforts on streets and playgrounds of such pioneer collectors as Harold Courlander, Edna Smith Edet, Tony Schwartz, and Henrietta Yurchenco, Folkways has issued recordings of children's exuberant vocal expressions since the 1950s.

Songs are time travel devices, to such places as the back porch of a patchwork house in the southern Appalachians or a ramshackle juke-joint at the outskirts of a Mississippi town, a village of Mbuti Pygmies in a central African rainforest or a one-room sod-house in the windswept Aran Islands off the Irish coast. In a similar way, the world that so captivates children's attention can be at least partly understood by listening to the songs they value. Children's songs spell out their priorities of the world—of partners, lines and circles; of birds painted blue, red, black, and spotted; of trains, trucks, cars, and planes; of wolves, roosters, chicks (los pollitos), and horses; and of Buckeye Jim, Long John, Tia Monica, Mary (with her red dress on), Captain Jinks, and Rosie Darling Rosie. Listening to the music of children, we are transported to their world, and we hear their joy even as we grow to understand who they really are.

In 1953 collector Tony Schwartz developed a breakthrough collection of children's street games and songs, 1, 2, 3 and a Zing Zing Zing, when he scouted out music-making children within several blocks of his midtown Manhattan neighborhood. He found children of a diversity of backgrounds—"Negro and white children of Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and other national backgrounds"—playing on sidewalks, stoops, playgrounds, in backyards and basements, sharing songs, chants, and rhythms. Their musical expressions fell into various categories, such as jump rope ("On the Mountain"), bounce ball ("2-4-6-8"), camp songs ("Bill Bones"), rhymes ("I Asked My Mother for Fifty Cents"), and a Spanish-language folk song, "Juan Charrascado" (Scarface John), about a Mexican Robin Hood. A lively "rhythm" selection featured teens playing on bongo, chairs, a wooden bench, metal wastebaskets, sticks, a hair comb covered with tissue paper, and an empty Pepsi-Cola bottle. The collection is more than mere documentation; it also constitutes teaching material on the children's musical repertoire of the period.

An intriguing recording in 1959 resulted from the efforts of anthropologist E. Richard Sorensen, who collected and edited the music of six preadolescent 11- and 12-year-old boys from the housing projects of New York City in Street and Gangland Rhythms. Their various improvisations are heavily percussive, utilizing bongo drums and homemade instruments such as sticks, Coke bottles, bells, and coins that they click together. Their voices are heard rhythmically chanting words and syllables on selections like "Bo Diddley," "Sister Suki," and "Gugamuga," a boogeyman who is alternately feared and appealed to as the all-powerful protector. An old English folk song, "The Fox," is turned into a driving rhythmic expression with the accompaniment of several drums. "Shoe-shine" selections feature a drum as backdrop to a dialogue between two boys about their life experiences at home, on the street, and in their work. Sorensen recorded the music in a residential training school which the boys had been ordered to attend, and it stands as record of marginalized children who, despite the odds, make lively and coherent music together.

Several collections are notable for the rich childlore material they offer to those who work with young children in schools and preschools, camps, and play groups. Ring Games: Line Games and Play Party Songs of Alabama is Harold Courlander's masterful 1953 collection of classic African American children's songs and singing games. In children's own singing voices, the recording is the source of material that was transferred to notation decades ago, and that has found its way into songbooks and teacher's methods books: "Mary Mack," "Bluebird Bluebird," "Charlie Over the Ocean," and "Bob-a-Needle." Henrietta Yurchenco's fieldwork from as early as the 1930s brought her in touch with children whose songs she collected for the next 40 years. Her Children's Songs and Games from Ecuador, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, completed in 1977, is a compendium of traditional Spanish folklore in the hands of children at play in schoolyards and plazas. Alongside the Spanish lyrics, the liner notes offer English translations and directions for playing games associated with "Lirón, Lirón," "Arroz con Leche," "Ambos a Do," "El Gato y El Ratón," and other songs. Edna Smith Edet, a musician and educator experienced in the musical culture of the West Indies, is credited as the collector of yet another rich source of children's lore, Caribbean Songs & Games for Children. This 1978 release of children's voices on children's songs offers samples from Haiti ("Petit Oiseau"), Jamaica ("Jump Shamador"), Puerto Rico ("La Señorita"), and Trinidad ("Gypsy in the Moonlight"). Taken together, these three recordings showcase children's singing voices in songs from here and there that are meant to be sung aloud, now as then.

Some adults cannot resist singing children's songs (nor should they!). For them, the combination of children and music brings a joie de vivre that is incomparable. The adult artist-musicians of the Smithsonian Folkways collection convey a certain whimsical side to themselves, and a delight in their roles as preservers and transmitters of traditional and composed songs for children's learning and enjoyment. They reach out into the world of children, devoting themselves to opening up young ears and minds to the ideas, languages, and musical qualities of the songs they sing.

A stellar cast of adult artist-musicians has contributed richly to the Folkways children's music collection. From as early as 1942, Moses Asch was recording albums of children's songs by singers with track records—among them, some of the most charismatic and colorful performers of the time: Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. Asch was charmed by the rapport that Lead Belly could establish with children in live performances, and so featured him on children's songs like "Sally Walker" and "Ha-Ha This a Way" in Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, even while he wondered aloud: "Whoever heard of a murderer singing play-party songs?" (Lead Belly had been earlier convicted of murder and attempted murder, and served prison time.) Asch established the Songs to Grow On series, featuring Guthrie in 1951 on "This Land Is Your Land." The Folkways label was the principal source for decades of this American standard, as well as many other of Guthrie's best-loved songs. His Nursery Days, a rich compendium of family favorites like "Riding in My Car," "Put Your Finger in the Air," and "Race You Down the Mountain," was first released in 1951 with the artist's advice: "Please, please, please, don't read nor sing my songs like no lesson book... Watch the kids. Do like they do." These singers could communicate with children live and on recordings, and their songs "would tell something, would teach, or would motivate for dance or rhythm or writing or seeing things." The artists were genuine, honest, and real, and they would not talk down to children but would offer in their songs "a message worth receiving."

In the 1950s and 1960s, coinciding with the post-war baby boom, Asch proved himself as much a popularizer as a producer of songs for children and their families. He helped Pete Seeger to shape a repertoire of beloved folk songs for children (such as "All Around the Kitchen," "Lolly Too Dum," "The Fox [went out on a chilly night]," "New River Train") and story-songs such as "Cumberland Mountain Bear Hunt" and "Abiyoyo"; these became widely known in schools and summer camps. He identified the talents of Ella Jenkins as a child-song singer extraordinaire, and saw the relevance of her work as a teacher in Chicago's urban neighborhoods to making songs fit the socio-musical needs of very young children. Over a period of 50 years, Ms. Jenkins released 36 Folkways albums for children. Other child-song singers were likewise drawn by Asch to making recordings for children, including Alan Mills, Jean Ritchie, Ruth Rubin, and Suni Paz, and their songs have been worked into classroom lessons and music programs across the world. With every vinyl record that was pressed, songs circulated more widely within families and in classrooms of singing children.

Ella Jenkins recognized early on that much of what children need to know of their language, heritage, and current cultural concepts can be communicated through song. For well over a half-century she has been singing to them, calling and chanting with them, and inspiring them to think and feel through music. One of her early award-winning records, You'll Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song, offers a repertoire of songs that quickly became familiar repertoire in kindergarten classes, including not only the title song but also "This Train," "Dulce Dulce," and "Did You Feed My Cow?" Her African-American Folk Rhythms, in which she is joined by the Goodwill Spiritual Choir, encompasses long-standing traditional songs like "Wade in the Water," folk tunes like "If I Had a Hammer," and three renditions of "Old Time Religion." The album Songs Children Love to Sing contains further songs with which so many identify Ella Jenkins: "This-a-way That-a-way," "Toom-Ba-Ee-Lero," and "Muffin Man." Sometimes children are heard joining with their soprano singing teacher, well prepared in their in-time singing and chanting, clapping, and playing of percussion instruments. Ella Jenkins sings in ways that are warm and welcoming, and through her recordings she established the model for bringing up children in musical ways. She was honored in 2004 with a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award. Now well into her 80s, Ella Jenkins will release her 34th album on Folkways in 2010.

On the album Alerta Sings and Songs for the Playground (Canciones Para el Recreo), Suni Paz shares a wide variety of Spanish-language and English-language songs that are easily accessible to even the youngest children. Her songful gems include "Naranja Dulce" (Sweet Orange), "La Rana" (The Frog), "Head to Shoulders," and "A Sailor Went to Sea." From the American first family of traditional music come the Seeger sisters (Peggy, Penny, and Barbara Seeger), who offer American Folk Songs for Christmas and sing their renditions of "Mary Had a Baby," "The Angel Band," "Sing Hallelu," "The Cherry Tree Carol," and "Ain't That Rockin' All Night." Half-brother Pete Seeger plays his five-string banjo in toe-tapping style on a host of recordings, including Song and Play Time (listen for "Froggie Went A-Courtin'," "Clap Your Hand," and "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain") and Folk Songs for Young People (click on "John Henry," "Dayenu," and "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho").

Traditional Anglo-American songs like "Who Killed Cock Robin?" and "Sourwood Mountain" surface in Jean Ritchie's Children's Songs and Games from the Southern Mountains—she the youngest of the legendary singing family of Ritchies identified by folklorist Cecil Sharp early in the twentieth century. Her crystal-clear soprano voice soars over the plucking chords of her mountain dulcimer. Ruth Rubin offers lullabies, riddle songs, singing games, and other folk songs in her Jewish Children Songs and Games, where her resonant contralto voice is accompanied by the higher plucked pitches of Pete Seeger's banjo. Elizabeth Mitchell resurrects some of the finest of Folkways children's music on her 2006 recording, You Are My Little Bird, personalizing again some of the rural African American and Anglo-American songs collected in the 1930s and 1940s. She admits to bringing the music of Elizabeth Cotten and Woody Guthrie into the nursery school classes she teaches, and recalls that "the kids loved it, I loved it—we had a time." Mitchell's voice on "Little Bird, Little Bird," "Lily Pond," and "Buckeye Jim" is intimate in the way that a mother sings to her child, and indeed, her daughter Storey (and husband Daniel) is featured on some of the songs.

The latest in a lineage of singing Guthries, Sarah Lee Guthrie (& Family) offers a playful set of songs for children on her brand new recording, "Go Waggoloo". She describes them as 'goin' down the road at the top of our lungs' songs, and ticks off songs that she sings around the house with her young children, and in the bathtub, and while cooking in the kitchen. The granddaughter of Woody, and daughter of Arlo, Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, Johnny Irion, provide easy-on-the-ears family sing-along songs that would woo even the most reluctant singer to want to join in. Their aim, to make a recording that 'doesn't make you want to jump out of a minivan', is readily achieved, and the appeal of the songs is in the comfortable range, the gently rocking rhythms, and soothing quality of the singing voices.

Long-standing and continuing, the commitment of Smithsonian Folkways to children is evidenced in the hours upon happy hours of recordings that capture the essence of children and the world they know. The songs they sing reflect their own identities as card-carrying members of children's culture, even as the songs of dedicated artist-musicians offer them windows on the wider world in which they are learning to live.

About the author

Pat Campbell teaches music-for-children courses at the University of Washington, and is author of Songs in Their Heads, Music in Childhood, and Musician & Teacher.