Smithsonian Institution
Fall 2009: Featuring Children's Music



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The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

Songs By and For Children:

A Legacy of Children's Music

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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.

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Click to watch video

Pete Seeger live performance at the Smithsonian Folkways Concert in honor of Ella Jenkins at the Music Center at Strathmore, 2005. Also included are clips from an interview.

American Folk, Game and Activity Songs by Pete Seeger

recording details