Smithsonian Institution
Fall 2009: Featuring Children's Music



The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

Songs By and For Children:

A Legacy of Children's Music

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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.

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Ella Jenkins performs for families at the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Sharing Cultures with Ella Jenkins and children from the LaSalle Language Academy of Chicago

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