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Songs to Grow On: Children’s Music from Smithsonian Folkways with Mr. Greg

Songs to Grow On: Children’s Music from Smithsonian Folkways with Mr. Greg
Songs to Grow On: Children’s Music from Smithsonian Folkways with Mr. Greg | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Written and curated by Greg Gardner

Recently, my preschool class took a deep dive into Folkways’ back catalog of children’s records. The kids sang and drummed along to the rhymes and rhythms of Ella Jenkins, wiggled and giggled to Woody Guthrie’s Wiggledy Giggly, slithered to the tune of Ginni Clemmens' Sneaky Snake, and danced an aquatic-inspired jig to "The Eel" by Johnny Larand and the Interns. Many of the preschoolers drew pictures that were inspired by the sometimes silly, sometimes sad, and often beautiful sounds they heard. A handful of children recreated their own artistic renditions of classic Folkways album covers adding their own flair and characters to Ronald Clyne’s iconic designs. During our Folkways listening parties, the students would share their thoughts with me and their classmates about the sounds that they were hearing. The children’s astute insights and charming non-sequiturs about the songs and serve as a commentary for this playlist.

Cass and I have been listening to many of these artists (Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, The Carter Family, Ella Jenkins, Elizabeth Cotten, Lucinda Williams, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, etc.) since we were kids ourselves and some we discovered more recently. I have played Folkways recordings to the little folks in my life since I first became a father and a teacher 13 years ago. These songs have worked their way into classroom lessons, preschool dance parties, nap-times, family road trips, sing-alongs, and they have served as a main inspiration for writing and recording Mr. Greg and Cass McCombs Sing and Play New Folksongs For Children.

Not only is listening to music quite enjoyable for children, it promotes language and vocabulary development, listening skills, and sparks creative thinking. Additionally, moving and dancing to music strengthens gross motor abilities and coordination, and singing together helps develop a sense of community. Furthermore, the sounds and lyrics in music help young people feel the entire spectrum of emotions, including empathy, sadness, hope, and joy.

Greg Gardner and Cass McCombs began collaborating together as Bay Area teenagers—skateboarding, making movies, sharing records, writing the sort of “silly songs” they’ve continued to write together well into adulthood. Decades later, Gardner is now known as “Mr. Greg,” a longtime San Francisco preschool teacher, and McCombs is one of the finest singer-songwriters of his generation. Their album, Mr. Greg & Cass McCombs Sing and Play New Folk Songs for Children, out now on Smithsonian Folkways, marks their first release together.
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Photo Gallery
Elementary school children exploring Folkways records in the classroom. Photo by Greg Gardner.
Elementary school children exploring Folkways records in the classroom. Photo by Greg Gardner.
Elementary school children exploring Folkways records in the classroom. Photo by Greg Gardner.
Elementary school children exploring Folkways records in the classroom. Photo by Greg Gardner.
Elementary school children exploring Folkways records in the classroom. Photo by Greg Gardner.
Elementary school children exploring Folkways records in the classroom. Photo by Greg Gardner.
Elementary school children exploring Folkways records in the classroom. Photo by Greg Gardner.
Elementary school children exploring Folkways records in the classroom. Photo by Greg Gardner.
Elementary school children exploring Folkways records in the classroom. Photo by Greg Gardner.
Elementary school children exploring Folkways records in the classroom. Photo by Greg Gardner.

Read about these Songs to Grow On below:

  1. Nancy Dupree, “What Do I Have?” (from Ghetto Reality, 1969)
    This song says “what do I have” a lot. What I have are beautiful parts of my voice when I sing. I also have a book for teacher Daisy to read to me today. - Simone, age 5

  2. Edgar Kendricks, “Let’s Count From 1 Through 20” (from Edgar Kendricks Sings for the Very Young, 1976)
    I love this music ‘cause it’s so cool (dancing to the song)! But do you know what 25 + 25 is? It’s 50! But why does the record go around and around and around? - Cole, age 4 ½
    I can count to 200! What comes after 199 is 200. - Win, age 5
    Sometimes my sister counts by twos. - Maya, age 5
  3. Woody Guthrie, “Bubble Gum” (from Nursery Days, 1992)
    I love the bubble gum song when Woody Guthrie says “mix my thumb in my oatmeal.” Chewing gum is really hard to chew ‘cause it takes forever and ever and ever and ever and ever to chew it! Rainbow candy is my favorite flavor gum. - Nina, age 3
  4. Jean Ritchie, “Train A Comin’” (from Marching Across The Green Grass and Other American Children’s Game Songs, 1968)
    We sing that song when we are walking over to circle time! - Hannah, age 3 Jean Ritchie has a beautiful voice like me. - Yoko, age 4 ½
  5. Snooks Eaglin, “Rock Island Line” (from New Orleans Street Singer, 2005)
    This train song makes me happy! I rode the Muni Train to the library. - Adeline, age 4
    Greg, you ride your skateboard to the Bart Train. Did you know that my nanny also rides the Bart Train cause she also lives in Richmond? - Win, age 5
  6. Dennis Allen, A. Kdjo Tetty, and W.K. Amoaku, “Miwoe Nenyo” (from African Songs and Rhythms For Children--Recorded and Annotated by Dr. W.K. Amoaku, 1990)
    I like playing the rhythm sticks to that song but I wanted to play the drums. - Adeline, age 4
    I did the drums like boom, boom, boom, boom! Can everyone be quiet? I am going to sing my first Ava song. My song is called Choo Choo Train Don’t Fly Away! (Ava pounds the drum and sings an improvised song.) - Ava, age 4
    I’m gonna make up a Blake song. My song is called Twinkle, Twinkle To The Sky! (Blake follows Ava’s lead with her own improvised percussive driven song). - Blake, age 4
  7. “Rhymes” (from 1, 2, 3 and a Zing Zing Zing: Street Games and Songs of the Children in New York City Recorded and Edited by Tony Schwartz, 1953)
    Birdy, birdy in the sky
    You dropped something in my eye
    Oh, don’t worry I won’t cry
    I’m just happy cows don’t fly
    Hee, hee! That’s gross, birds drop poop from the sky! - Vincent, age 4
    If cows flew over and dropped something then there would be a big splat of poop on my face! - Maya, age 5
  8. Ginni Clemmens, “Sneaky Snake” (from We All Have a Song: Activity and Bed-Time Songs with Ginni Clemmens, 1977)
    Snakes go in the grass. I drew Sneaky Snake in the grass. -Maya, age 5
    I drawed a sneaky snake and it looked like half a komodo dragon and half a spiked dinosaur. - Maya, age 5
    I sing Sneaky Snake every day at my home! - Celeste, age 5
  9. Nancy Dupree with a group of Rochester, N.Y. youngsters, “Frankenstein” (from Ghetto Reality, 1969)
    Frankenstein got scared because of a mouse! - Clare, age 4
    Some mouses come to my house so that’s why we got sticky, sticky, sticky stuff, but in the morning, we put them outside. - Blake, age 4
    We got mouse traps at our house so that’s why we are okay with a mouse coming into our house, but Frankenstein is not. - Yoko, age 4
    Is the Frankenstein monster real? - Ava, age 4
    I get scared of dinosaurs. I went to see dinosaurs and I got really scared and ran away! - Blake, age 4
  10. Lucinda Williams, “Jambalaya” (from Ramblin’ On My Mind, 1979)
    I like to twirl when I hear this song! I had jambalaya from a jambalaya food store and it made me so silly and crazy! -Clare, age 4
  11. José-Luis Orozco, “Chocolate” (from ¡Come Bien! Eat Right!, 2015)
    He’s speaking Spanish! I learned Spanish from my mommy. - Adeline, age 4
    My favorite chocolate is chocolate popsicles and chocolate ice cream. - Blake, age 4
    Do you know when it is Easter I will be freaked out! BECAUSE I LOVE CHOCOLATE!! I’ll have chocolate cookies and peanut butter cups and jelly beans! - Hannah, age 3
  12. Ella Jenkins and the Goodwill Spiritual Choir, “Did You Feed My Cow” (from African-American Folk Rhythms, 1960, 1998)
    I don’t like when the cow died, but I like when she got milked since all the people get to have milk in the world. There are sometimes chunky strawberries in strawberry ice cream that is made from cow milk. - Simone, age 5
  13. Leadbelly, “Skip To My Lou” (from Classic Folk Songs for Kids from Smithsonian Folkways, 2016)
    I love this song! I play it all of the time on my phone. - Ava, age 4
  14. Elizabeth Cotton, “Shake Sugaree” (from Shake Sugaree, 2004)
    That song makes me feel like drawing some hearts and rainbows.
    - Blake, age 4 It sounds like a unicorn singing. - Juliet, age 5
    It sounds like a unicorn gliding down from the sky. - Omar, age 4
    It sounds like lovely music. - Charlie, age 4
    The guitar is like an elephant walking. - Munsel, age 4
    I like that song because it’s kind of my favorite. - Simi, age 5
    It is kind of my favorite too. - Rehan, age 4
  15. The Carter Family featuring a 6-year-old Anita Carter, “Giddyup Go” (from On Border Radio, Vol. 3, 1999)
    I know something about ponies because a big kid that is ten years old or seven years old has a pet pony. I petted the pony’s head and it wasn’t even scary at all. I know how to pet ponies VERY well and I don’t put my hand in their mouth at all because they have up and down teeth. Goats only have upper teeth. The big kid also has a pet dragon. I like this song! - Yoko, age 4
  16. Michael Hurley, “Captain Kidd” (from First Songs, 1964)
    If I had a rocket ship like Captain Kidd I would fly to Mars! - Maya, age 5
    I would fly to Saturn! It’s just a planet with rings. I would put a flag on there and then I would go back to my family. I would jump and fly in space because there is no gravity. If you jump on Earth you just fall back down.
    - Vincent, age 4
  17. Children in New York City, “Camp Songs: Bill Bones” (from Music for Children, Music by Children, 2017)
    This song is sad even though the singing voice is pretty. - Yoko, age 4
    The goat was eating shirts, but then it got hurt. Its throat got cut.
    - Clare, age 4
    I don’t want no one to do that! - Yoko, age 4
    Me neither! - Clare, age 4
  18. Ella Jenkins, “Pretty Trees Around the World” (from Rhythms of Childhood, 1963, 1992)
    My prettiest tree is a flower tree with rainbow flowers. - Celeste, age 5
    My prettiest tree is an olive tree. - Vincent, age 4
    I love this tree song! - Win, age 5
    I like to climb trees at the park. I saw the sky from up there and I saw lots of houses. Also, my tooth is wiggly now and I have a grown-up tooth.
    - Eleanor, age 5
  19. Children In New York City recorded by Tony Schwartz, “Folk Songs” (from 1, 2, 3 and a Zing Zing Zing: Street Games and Songs of the Children in New York City Recorded and Edited by Tony Schwartz, 1953)
    The kids are singing on the playground with a Minion voice. It kinda sounds pretty! Is that French or Spanish or French? I know it was Spanish. I don’t sing Spanish. I just speak Spanish a little bit. I can say uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco. Cinco is five and quatro is four. When I learn Spanish I am going to speak a little more. I learn a little every day from my mom. I like to sing Let It Go and Did You Feed My Cow?on the playground and at home. - Blake, age 4
    Me too! That’s one of my favorite songs! - Celeste, age 5
    I love Little Wilma Wiggly Worm! - Hannah, age 3
  20. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, “Jenny Jenkins” (from Smoky Mountain Ballads, 1953)
    What’s a tally fallyizer? That’s a silly word! - Clare, age 4
  21. Peggy Seeger, “A Squirrel is a Pretty Thing” (from Animal Folk Songs for Children: Selected from Ruth Crawford Seeger's Animal Folk Songs for Children, 1957)
    I’ve seen a lot of squirrels climbing on a tree. They was in a house in a tree, but we don’t have corn for the squirrels. -Yoko, age 4
    I have a lot of corn at my house. I would set it down for the squirrel and he would eat it. - Clare, age 4
  22. Nancy Dupree with a group of Rochester, N.Y. youngsters, “James Brown” (from Ghetto Reality, 1969)
    I like when James Brown spins around! He does the splits! - Clare, age 4
    That’s crazy dancing! I can do the splits! That’s a piano on this song! My sister plays the piano. She actually does piano lessons with Julie! Those are old people singing in this song. They are like seven. - Maya, age 5
    The singers of this song are waaaay older than people in preschool!
    - Yoko, age 4
  23. Sam Hinton, “Frog Went Courting” (from Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts, 2006)
    That’s a funny song! Ha, ha! - Edie, age 3
    Yeah, he’s singing made up words! - Maya, age 5
  24. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, “Don’t You Push Me Down” (from Woody Guthrie's Songs to Grow On, 1961)
    If someone pushes you down they can say “sorry” and “what do you need to feel better?” Mr. Greg, do you know how I got this boo boo on my nose? I was going up Bernal Hill and it has so many loose rocks. My shoes were on the wrong feet and the loose rocks pushed me down. - Blake, age 4
  25. Dave Van Ronk, “One Meatball” (from …and the tin pan bended and story ended…, 2004)
    When I come out of my bath at my house I look like a meatball with my towel on. - Edie, age 3
  26. Ginni Clemmens, “The Living Room Song” (from We All Have a Song, 1977)
    That’s like the song like I Had A Rooster with the cow and the horse! In my living room I hear a knock knock on the door and my sister drawing on paper and my mom doing work on her computer. And the vvmmmmmm sound of the microwave and the beep beep at the end. - Simone, age 5
  27. Shirley Collins, “Poor Old Horse” (from False True Lovers, 1959)
    I rode a pony before with Lilly and Clara because it was for my birthday. It wasn’t a poor old horse. One pony was named Casper just like Edie’s brother is Casper! Its mane was either brown or black. Basically we just went around and around, but my sister’s pony pooped because it ate hay. It had horse shoes on their little feet and black hooves. - Maya, age 5
  28. Howard Finster, “Five To My Five” (from Folk Visions and Voices: Traditional Music and Song in Northern Georgia - Vol. 2, 1984)
    He’s singing about counting! - Edie, age 3
    Howard Finster uses a lot of colors with paint. He’s an artist. He draws a mermaid and eyeballs and a hat and letters and a building and everything! The paintings look like a toy, but a very special toy! I saw a giraffe and a zebra and a dog and a goat and a chicken. I drew a dinosaur today. It was an Ankylosaurus and a long neck. Howard Finster drew a different color dinosaur with points. - Hugh, age 5
  29. Vera Hall, “Mama’s Goin’ To Buy Him A Little Lap Dog” (from Music Down Home: An Introduction to Negro Folk Music, U.S.A., 1965)
    I don’t have a lap dog but I have two kitty cats. My mom cuts their nails. The kitties go in my lap, but only sometimes they hurt me and make a scratch. But I still like them because they let me pet them. - Nina, age 3
  30. Ella Jenkins, “Wake Up, Little Sparrow” (from Rhythms of Childhood, 1963)
    Her voice is amazing and she sounds sad because the little bird has wings, but it can’t fly because all its friends flied away and the little bird is still a baby and can’t fly. I would listen to this song every day and every hour! Can you play that song again, Greg? - Ava, age 4
  31. The Doc Watson Family, “The Cuckoo Bird” (from The Watson Family, 1990)
    A cuckoo bird comes out of a clock after you wind it with your hand and it goes, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo! The real cuckoo bird talks like a cuckoo clock. I wanna meet a real cuckoo bird. My mom and dad play songs like this. My mom and me play banjo and I am going to have banjo lessons after school and have hot cocoa after school. - Clare, age 4
  32. Leadbelly, “Boll Weevil” (from Lead Belly Sings for Children, 1999)
    It’s true that scorpions have poison and they can pinch you with their pinchers. I would have a scorpion at my home if it was nice to me, but I wouldn’t have a boll weevil cause it would make holes in my clothes. - Simone, age 5
    I got bit by a real scorpion when I was a baby. It has venom, but I didn’t cry. - Vincent, age 4
  33. Six Boys In Trouble, “Sister Suki” (from Street and Gangland Rhythms, Beats and Improvisations by Six Boys in Trouble, 1959)
    I have a sister too and she is one. Her name is Ailey. Like A-I-L-E-Y. I take care of my sister. I feed her and I read my sister books about bunny rabbits. I play Magnatiles with her and we build BIG towers! - Clare, age 4
  34. Elizabeth Mitchell and Suni Paz, “Rema, Rema, Rema el Bote” (from Tú eres mi flor: Songs for Children en Españo, 2018)
    That’s Row Row Row Your Boat in Spanish! I’m from Mexico City. That’s how I know Spanish. I learned it from my mama and daddy and nana. - Adeline, age 4 I learned Spanish from Adeline. - Celeste, age 5
    Let’s pretend we are on a big, BIG boat! It’s like Sea Beast! Sea Beast is a movie about a big ship and a monster comes on the ship. - Hudson, age 3
  35. Charity Bailey, “Hey Betty Martin” (from Songs To Grow On, Vol. 2: School Days, 1951)
    Betty Martin tip-toes and skips around the corner. - Edie, age 3
    I know how to tip-toe really quiet when mama is asleep and I want to go in her bed. - Hugh, age 5
  36. Kathy and Carol, “Swallow Song” (from The Village Out West: The Lost Tapes of Alan Oakes, 2021)
    I like the ladies’ voices because they are so nice and calm. A swallow is a kind of bird and my favorite kind of flying thing is a butterfly - Blake, age 4
    Humans swallow something down their throat like watermelon! - Yoko, age 4
  37. Woody Guthrie, “Wiggledy Giggledy” (from Long Ways to Travel: The Unreleased Folkways Masters, 1944-1949, 1994)
    That song makes me want to wiggle like a marshmallow that is big as the whole world! Ballerinas dance on one feet like this! -Edie, age 3
    Play that song again! - Hudson, age 3
  38. Children of N.Y.P.S. 63, “Transportation” (from Gosh, What a Wonderful World!, 1959)
    A bike is my favorite kind of transportation because it is so fun and sometimes makes me laugh! I ride my bike to the purple slide park.
    - Clare, age 4
    Bikes are really fun because I actually ride to Dolores Park and school on my bike. - Simone, age 5
    I go really fast on my scooter and I can do real jumps and I’m learning how to do my bike with training wheels! And guess what…I’m learning how to do a flip on my skateboard! - Hugh, age 5
  39. Mr. Greg and Cass McCombs, “Little Wilma Wiggly Worm” (from Mr. Greg & Cass McCombs Sing and Play New Folk Songs for Children, 2023)
    I like Wilma Wiggly Worm because she’s got no skeleton and no hair. If Wilma had a skeleton she wouldn’t be so squishy. -Blake, age 4
    And Wilma wouldn’t be a worm if she had a wig! She would just be a human. - Celeste, age 5
    I like to ballet dance to the Wilma Wiggly Worm song! - Adeline, age 4
    It reminds me of Sneaky Snake! Can you play it again? I’m ready!
    - Hudson, age 3
  40. Johnny Larand and the Internes, “The Eel” (from Roots: Rhythm and Blues, 1966)
    I’m gonna go swimming like eels in the water and dance and jump to this song! Eels have sharp teeth! It looks like a snake and a fish. Maybe it can dive under the sea. - Edie, age 3