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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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.

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Click to watch video

Suni Paz sings "Los Vecinos" (The Neighbors), a song for children.

Alerta Sings and Songs for the Playground/ Canciones Para el Recreo by Suni Paz

recording details