Smithsonian Institution
Summer 2010: Featuring Featuring Grassroots Music from the United States



The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

Elizabeth Mitchell

Keeping Things Simple

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Elizabeth Mitchell, singer, songwriter, and music educator, was born in New York City in 1968. She began her music career at the age of five when she started studying music theory and piano. As a child, she sang in school and in her church choir. Later in college she auditioned for school choruses and a cappella groups; she also learned to play the guitar and started to write her own original compositions.

Soon Mitchell had her own rock band, but she never felt fully comfortable in the spotlight. So she went on to become a nursery school teacher, where she had the opportunity to sing with children sitting on the floor, listening to traditional music and learning songs from records by The Carter Family and Lead Belly. One day while visiting a friend who owned a music studio, she decided to record an album to give to friends and family. Completed in a single day in 1998, the album was such a success among her friends and family that they encouraged her to pursue a professional music career. Today Elizabeth Mitchell has several albums, two of them released by Smithsonian Folkways.

When asked how she would define her music, Mitchell responded:

“Well, the music I make for Smithsonian Folkways is children's music. I don't feel the need to call it ‘family music,’ as many people do these days. I'm really proud to make music for children; I always start with them first. If there have to be categories of music, I believe children deserve their own. There is such an incredible tradition of creative and artistic children's literature—we don't call it ‘family literature!’—and I believe it can be the same for children's music. The work set forth by Folkways artists Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Suni Paz sets a standard of excellence that humbles and challenges me.”

Mitchell’s detail-oriented instrumentation, which often includes acoustic guitar, banjo, soft percussion, and carefully intertwined voices, gives her a distinct sound. Music such as bossa nova, bluegrass, early rock and roll, rhythm and blues, reggae, dub, traditional and devotional music, as well as music from Africa, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia and minimalism comprise only a few of her sources. Mitchell’s blend of traditional folk genres with modern and diverse musics makes hers a beautiful musical craft.

This unique combination of sounds, melodies, and rhythms creates a fresh sound that, according to Mitchell, is:

“An effort to try new things and find new sounds. We hope that the music feels very alive and present, and that you feel just like you are in the room with us when you are listening. I think that playing with musicians of all ages, across many generations, helps to keep the music fresh and it keeps us on our toes!”

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Click to watch video

Music video of "Oh, John the Rabbit" by Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower

Click images to enlarge

Sunny Day by Elizabeth Mitchell

recording details