A Mule Named Sal: American Folk Music for Toddlers

Pete Seeger, American folk singer

Pete Seeger, American folk singer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday may have seemed like a normal day to you, but that’s because you were likely unaware that it was, in fact, my stage debut. After rehearsing together quietly for the past few months, I was invited to embarrass myself publicly on-stage by the ever-generous local children’s musician, Mr. Gabe.

We sang six or so songs, including some of his originals from his awesome CD and other classics like Erie Canal and Froggie Went a’ Courtin. I love to sing simple, good music, and it was a wonderful feeling to think that those of us with passable — rather than great — voices still have something to give.

So I thought that in honor of my new adventures in harmony, I would write about some of my favorite children’s music, as well as my favorite music for children. There are many musical options now for young children, and I often check out the CDs for sale at yard sales and the thrift store. Of course, engaging the natural interests of children in rhythm and dance, and in music, is a wonderful way to enhance and round out their development and to relax.

We listen to music whenever we can: at home, in the car, and before bed. In the children’s music category, we like Marvelous Day, by Steve Roslonek, some of Laurie Berkner (but, sadly, some songs are irritating) and Frances England, and a few of the totally nutty songs by John Lithgow from his children’s album (like “You Gotta Have Skin,” or “At the Codfish Ball”– but beware grating ones like “Singing in the Bathtub,” which is, oddly, the title tune). Although fun, the older-kid pop stuff by groups like They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies still mostly goes right over Maya’s head, and will have to wait.

The truth is, it’s hard to write music for kids that is age-appropriate, musically interesting, and strikes an emotional chord. And — most importantly for the adult listeners — is not annoying. Just as in the world of children’s “literature,” there’s a lot of dreck that poses as enrichment.

Which is why it’s often easier, instead, to think about the music that is part of the American tradition and that forms a child-friendly core of songs from the larger culture. These are famous for a reason — they combine music, story-telling and emotional truth. Some children’s music actually comes from this place — like Pete Seeger’s or Leadbelly’s — and is a joy to behold. Newer entertainers also have takes on the classics, like Elizabeth Mitchell (who’s channeling Seeger much of the time, and also has a tribute album to Woody Guthrie), Dan Zanes and Lisa Loeb.

While I was pregnant with Maya, I undertook to compile my own personal list of songs that would both appeal to young children and are part of this American folk musical tradition. This is music I grew up with, and are the songs Maya now knows and sings with me. I wanted to go beyond the obvious — “Itsy Bitsy” and “Twinkle Twinkle,” though those have their place — and find the wonderful, revealing and gritty music that is in the air, that all of us know and love.

The playlist we use is below, with suggestions on artists, and in no particular order.

American Folk Music for Toddlers: A Few Ideas       

  • This Little Light of Mine                  Sam Cooke                 
  • Red River Valley                  Moe Bandy                 
  • You Are My Sunshine                   Kevin Devine                 
  • Sixteen Tons                                    Tennessee Ernie Ford                 
  • Molly Malone                                The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem   
  • This Old Man                                         Bob Dylan
  • Michael Row the Boat Ashore                  The Brothers Four                 
  • Sloop John B                                    The Beach Boys                            
  • Circle Game                                    Joni Mitchell                 
  • Waltzing Matilda                               Burl Ives                 
  • Swing Low, Sweet Chariot             Mavis Staples & Lucky Peterson                 
  • Shoo Fly – Don’t Bother Me                 Sweet Honey In the Rock                 
  • Zip-a-dee-doo-dah                                    Anthony the Banjo Man                  
  • Streets of Laredo                  Moe Bandy                 
  • Roseville Fair                                    Misty River                 
  • Will the Circle Be Unbroken                   Mavis Staples                 
  • Scarborough Fair / Canticle                Simon & Garfunkel                 
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain                  Blind Boys of Alabama                        
  • Morning Has Broken                         Cat Stevens                 
  • Ol’ Man River                                    Jeff Beck
  • The Rainbow Connection               Willie Nelson
  • Sea of Love                                  The Honeydrippers
  • The Water Is Wide                             Eva Cassidy
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water                  Simon & Garfunkel
  • Motherless Chil’                                    Sweet Honey In The Rock
  • Amazing Grace                  Spivey Hall Children’s Choir
  • Kumbaya                  Peter, Paul and Mary
  • Peacetrain                   Cat Stevens
  • Father and Son                                Cat Stevens
  • Jumbalaya (on the Bayou)                  Hank Williams
  • Sunshine On My Shoulders                  John Denver
  • Roseville Fair                                    Misty River
  • Forever Young                                    Bob Dylan
  • Sweet Baby James                  James Taylor
  • One Little Light                                    Gary Jules
  • Cotton Eyed Joe                                    Nina Simone
  • You’ve Got A Friend                  Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
  • A Change Is Gonna Come                  Sam Cooke
  • Nobody Knows the Trouble I See            The Dixie Hummingbirds
  • Hey, Good Lookin’                                     Hank Williams  
  • When the Saints Go Marching In             The Hit Crew
  • What a Wonderful World                        Louis Armstrong
  • We Are The Ones                          Sweet Honey In The Rock
  • Leaving On a Jet Plane                           John Denver
  • Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes            Paul Simon
  • The House That Jack Built                        Aretha Franklin
  • A Tisket a Tasket                                       Ella Fitzgerald
  • You Make Me Feel So Young                    Frank Sinatra
  • Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)            B.B. King
  • Swinging on a Star (Single)                        Bing Crosby
  • My Way                                                Frank Sinatra  
  • Shoo Li Loo                                       Elizabeth Mitchell
  • Shoo Fly                                    Sweet Honey in the Rock
  • Rockin’ Robin                                         Sha Na Na                 
  • Erie Canal                               Dan Zanes & Suzanne Vega
  • Coal Miner’s Daughter                      Loretta Lynn
  • City of New Orleans                       Steve Goodman                 
  • I’ll Fly Away                             Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch                 
  • My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains      The Lost & Found                 
  • Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy                  The Andrews Sisters
  • Midnight Train to Georgia            Gladys Knight & The Pips                                   
  • Coconut                                        Harry Nilsson                                   
  • Lean On Me                                    Bill Withers                                   
  • Moonshadow                                  Cat Stevens
  • Cat’s In the Cradle                         Harry Chapin                                   
  • Summertime                                    Sam Cooke
  • Children Go Where I Send You             Nina Simone
  • Tea for Two                               Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie
  • At the Zoo                                      Simon & Garufunkel  
  • The Battle of New Orleans                     Johnny Horton
  • You Are My Sunshine                               Norman Blake
  • The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)                  Harry Belafonte
  • King Of The Road                                  Roger Miller
  • Moon River                                         Jerry Butler
  • Mr. Bojangles                                       Jerry Jeff Walker
  • You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile        Dan Zanes
  • I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry                    Hank Williams
  • St. James Infirmary                  Chris Thomas King
  • Moonshadow                                  Cat Stevens
  • We Shall Overcome                  Mahalia Jackson
  • The Streets of Laredo                  Johnny Cash
  • Octopus’s Garden                  The Beatles
  • Big Rock Candy Mountain                  Harry McClintock
  • Row, Row, Row Your Boat                  Schoolchildren Of Wanseko, Uganda
  • She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain                  Pete Seeger
  • (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay                  Glen Campbell
  • This Land Is Your Land                  Woody Guthrie
  • Dinah                                         Bing Crosby And The Mills Bros.
  • Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe)          Michelle Shocked
  • Wabash Cannonball                  Boxcar Willie
  • Jump In the Line                                    Harry Belafonte
  • Cotton Fields                                       Odetta
  • Talkin’ Bout a Revolution                      Tracy Chapman
  • Jambalaya (On the Bayou)                  Hank Williams
  • Home On the Range                               Moe Bandy                 
  • Down in the Valley                                David Grisman & Jerry Garcia                 
  • Oh Susanna                                           Lisa Loeb                 
  • Fever                                                   Peggy Lee                 
  • Yellow Submarine                                    The Beatles                 
  • Sippin Cider Through a Straw                  Susie Tallman                 
  • Little Red Caboose                                    Lisa Loeb                 
  • When I’m Sixty-Four                             The Beatles              
  • Yankee Doodle                                    Boxcar Willie                 
  • Kookaburra Sits In the Old Gum Tree          Lazy Harry                 
  • Little Boxes                                          Malvina Reynolds                 
  • Keep On The Sunny Side                       The Whites                 
  • It’s Not Easy Being Green                   Kermit the Frog
  • Down to the River to Pray                    Allison Krause
  • Battle Hymn of the Republic                  Boxcar Willie 
  • Our House                                        Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • Into the Mystic                                     Van Morrison
  • Canned Goods                                    Greg Brown
  • Keep Me in Your Heart                        Warren Zevon
  • Circle ‘Round the Sun                         Woody Guthrie
  • This Land Is Your Land                        Bob Dylan
  • Redemption Song                               Bob Marley
  • Wild World                                          Cat Stevens
  • Corinna, Corinna                                 Bob Dylan
  • He Gives Us All His Love                    Randy Newman
  • Across the Great Divide                      Nanci Griffith
  • Take Me Home, Country Roads         John Denver
  • 500 Miles                                          Roseanne Cash
  • Blackbird                                          The Beatles
  • Summertime                 Sam Cooke (more cheerful than Billie Holiday’s version)

While these are the “core,” I also trolled through my music generally and created a large playlist of Maya-friendly songs outside the folk tradition, including world music, Motown, jazz, and other genres. When we tire of these, that larger list is the go-to. If you’ve already gone digital, this takes an evening and solves the endless question of what to put on the player…

Please do tell:  What’s on your list? What gems and touchstones am I missing?

4 thoughts on “A Mule Named Sal: American Folk Music for Toddlers

  1. Got this nice email from a friend:

    Hi Laura,

    Your music list is awesome and looks like my Ipod.
    Elizabeth Mitchell, peggy lee! Krauss, Francis England and Dan Zanes and Sweet Honey are my favorite. Nora Jones of course as well!

    I saw you did not have Sara Hickman – do check her out- her music was perfect when my kids were about 5 as some songs are more complicated than others. How i loved her “newborn ” album, and the songs Lily and angel. I also like Kath Reid, Circle of the sun – “put your shoes on Lucy” is a favorite. and Carol King The Really Rosie Album – so so great it has chicken soup with Rice and pierre on it, as well as the sweet honey tribute to ella jenkins and the they might be giants “no” album

    do you have the elizabeth mitchell and Lisa Loeb, Catch the Moon album? beautiful

    Right now we have been infiltrated with pop music (5th grade), with eyes rolling if I try other songs. sigh but just last night they were listening to Sara Hickman and reminiscing…

  2. Great list! I stumbled upon a guy named Johnny Bregar several years ago that has recorded several albums of the great standards of the “children’s” genre that are quite fun. When I taught second grade, my students really enjoyed listening to his music. Below are a few more songs that have been popular with the 5-9 year olds I’ve played them for over the years.

    Crayola Doesn’t Make A Color For Your Eyes ~ Kristin Andreassen
    The Fox ~ *many great recordings including Nickel Creek, Odetta, Harry Belafonte, and Waco Brothers
    Martin Luther King & Rosa Parks ~ Trout Fishing In America
    Big Round World ~ Trout Fishing In America
    Walk Tall ~ Ziggy Marley w/Paul Simon
    Future Man/Future Lady ~ Ziggy Marley w/Laurie Berkner
    Mahna Mahna ~ Cake (way funkier than the original)
    Old Dan Tucker ~ Bruce Springsteen (Seeger Sessions) <— great recording of a classic!
    Froggie Went A Courting ~ Bruce Springsteen (Seeger Sessions) <— ditto
    Teddy Bears Picnic ~ Jerry Garcia & David Grisman
    The Littlest Birds ~ The Be Good Tanyas
    Three Little Birds ~ Bob Marley
    Yes I Will ~ Michael Franti & Spearhead
    Hey Now Now ~ Michael Franti & Spearhead
    Messages ~ Xavier Rudd
    Energy Song ~ Xavier Rudd
    It's A Good Day ~ Belleville Outfit (they do an energetic interpretation of the classic 1940's song)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s