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?

Have Yourself a Merry (and Non-Toxic!) Christmas

IMG_5821Just like the folks at Fox News say, at my house every year there is a War on Christmas. A War on Christmas hazards, that is.

I actually get all ooey gooey over Christmas. I love bedecking the mantel with snowmen (where are all the snow ladies, anyway?), reciting the Night before Christmas until even Maya is rolling her eyes, and I’ve already festooned our house iPod with overly cheerful holiday tunes.

But I’ll skip the excessive materialism, toxic chemicals, and baubles made by enslaved children, thank you very much. Or at least give it the old elfin try.

I’ve been making my list, and checking it twice. So here’s a few things to think about this holiday season as you contemplate the true meaning of Christmas:

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O Christmas Tree

If you can find a source for organic trees — or find the time to go get your own — this is worth doing. Ours comes conveniently from a lovely neighbor in Takoma Park, who runs a CSA farm and also cultivates sustainable, organic trees.

Why go organic? Keep in mind that trees are brought into your house in the middle of winter, when you are least likely to open the windows, and the needles tend to get everywhere. While no one appears to have measured pesticide exposure in the home from bringing in a Christmas tree, this is an utterly avoidable risk, and we do know that trees are sprayed liberally with nasty pesticides and fungicides. In places like Oregon, the pesticide atrazine is sprayed from the trees aerially on Christmas tree farms, and such indicriminate spraying harms both animals and water quality.

Need more convincing? Here’s two well done articles, one from the New York Times, and another recent piece that notes:

No independent, comprehensive studies are widely available on how much pesticide residue is released once a tree is set up in a warm home environment. However, atrazine and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals are nonmonotonic, meaning even at extremely low exposure levels, damage can occur.

While you’re at it, be aware that conventional liquid tree food is full of toxins, and are in a bowl which can be lapped up by the dog or splashed in by a toddler. There’s no point in going organic halfway, particularly when it’s so easy to make tree food with sugar, lemons and water (or with store-bought lemonade if you like). I use half a lemon, fresh squeezed and a tablespoon of sugar in as much water as needed (the proportions aren’t picky).

Although natural is best, keep in mind that many holiday decorating plants are quite toxic if eaten. Both holly and mistletoe berries are very poisonous, and can even be fatal if consumed by children. Bittersweet, boxwood, and even pine can also cause problems if eaten. So hang those wreaths high!

Allergies can be an issue too. And if you live someplace like South Texas, as the allergist Dr. Claudia Miller wrote to me today, be very wary of the evergreens like the Texas Mountain Cedar, which have, as she wrote, “some of the highest pollen counts known to mankind.” They pollinate right in time for Christmas, and unsuspecting folks have been known to develop allergies overnight from bringing them indoors.

Even with all this, the natural options are preferable, because artificial trees and fake greenery are typically made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a terrible plastic that off-gasses, mixed with lead, a potent and notorious neuro-toxin. Again, the heath risks are not clear. As one study concluded:

Results from these experiments show that, while the average artificial Christmas tree does not present a significant exposure risk, in the worst-case scenarios a substantial health risk to young children is quite possible.

Another article debunks the notion that fake trees are somehow “greener” (after all, PVC is not a biodegradable material), and describes a troubling federal study on exposures:

In a 2008 report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a multi-agency review panel on U.S. children’s exposure to lead noted, “Artificial Christmas trees made of PVC also degrade under normal conditions. About 50 million U.S. households have artificial Christmas trees, of which about 20 million are at least nine years old, the point at which dangerous lead exposures can occur.”

Smith explained, “Recent studies have found that as plastic trees age, they can start to release a kind of lead dust into your home. That alone could have a real impact on how long we want to keep an artificial tree before replacing it – perhaps with a live tree.”

Why bring these risks into your home? There are so many other ways to decorate, as well as more natural options for greenery! I heartily recommend tchotchkes as one way to go.

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The Stars Are Brightly Shining

Sadly, Christmas lights are also a problem: most commercial lights (like most appliance cords, btw) are made of a mix of PVC and lead as well. Here’s what one lightmaker says:

The lead in holiday string lights is used as an additive to the Polyvinyl Chloride wire covering. The lead acts as a heat resistant insulator and is also used to help stabilize the coloring of the wire. All PVC contains some sort of metal stabilizer including lead, cadmium or tin. Christmas lights have contained lead since they have used PVC as an insulating coating and pose no danger with normal use. Lead containing PVC is used in many common household applications including the PVC piping used to deliver our drinking water, other electrical cords which are insulated with PVC, and even car keys.

You should wear gloves, ideally, when sorting them out from their inevitable spaghetti tangle, and/or wash your hands well after hanging them up. Do not let kids touch or play with them either, obviously. She does not cite a source, but toxics expert Debra Lynn Dadd does say “they are fine when hanging. They don’t outgas lead, you just don’t want to touch them.”

For better options, some LED lights — allegedly such as those sold by Ikea or this Environmental Lighting site — meet the European Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), which requires them to be virtually lead-free. I did schlepp to Ikea last year to look at the LED options, which was a special kind of awful given the amount of off-gassing particle-board in any Ikea, but I did not like the LED lights at all. They were faint, tiny and gave off a cold white light without enough twinkle to be Christmas-y.

I also checked out the Environmental Lighting site, but you need to buy a controller and power source for the lights, which makes changing to LED a significant investment of around $100 or so.

When I think of the amount of PVC and lead involved in traditional lights, it makes me sad. At least some places have recycling programs for them (and some LED sellers offer discounts in exchange)! And perhaps the LED types will improve over time. If folks are aware of nicer LED options, please do let me know.

Candles are also a common holiday touch, and a nice one at that! Unfortunately, conventional candles are made of paraffin wax, and many wicks contain lead. From Healthy Child, Healthy World:

Though the US Consumer Product Safety Commission asked candle manufacturers to replace lead wicks with zinc, compliance is voluntary and imported candles are not checked; in addition, commercial-grade zinc and zinc alloys used in wicks contain lead.

Aside from the wick, the candle wax can also be a respiratory irritant. Wax can be made of petroleum paraffin, which emits toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde when burned (these are carcinogens, neurotoxins, and reproductive toxins).

And the now-ubiquitous scented ones use chemical scents that typically contain pthalates, a chemical used in fragrances for many household items that has been linked to diabetes and heart disease, among other health problems. At our house, we do have some regular unscented candles to use as decorations, but we only burn the ones that are natural beeswax.

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Deck the Halls 

Those lovely ornaments on the tree are a source of additional concern. They’ve been known to contain lead paint or mercury (some are even called “mercury glass” ornaments!), so be sure that they do not get handled or mouthed by children.

And speaking of children, you may be interested to know that on December 5th, 14 children in India were freed from enslavement in a sweatshop where they were working to make Christmas ornaments for Western customers. Where you can, it’s always best to buy Fair Trade, to buy them from craftspeople, or make your own decorations. Ten Thousand Villages, Serrv, and Fair Indigo are great resources for these, which also make wonderful gifts!

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Joy to the World

I’ll be posting soon with a round of gift options on the greener side and some DIY ideas for presents. In the meantime, I’ll try to resurrect the real spirit of Christmas (and shake off the toxic bah-humbugs) by commending to you some of my favorite, more off-beat, holiday tunes.

First, what could possibly be a better deal than Sufjan Steven’s wonderful 4-disc Christmas music set for a cool $15? Simply called “Songs for Christmas,” these are ethereal takes on familiar songs, alongside his own eclectic synth-folk signature songwriting. (Just order the actual box-set, because it comes with some extras and a cute little book.) Along similar lines, I adore the un-done beauty of Low’s album, “Christmas,” and especially am grateful for “Just Like Christmas,” which is Low at it’s pop-highest.

Because nothing says the holidays like a nostalgic political anthem, I’ll also throw in a plea for you to give Steve Earle’s earnestly progressive “Christmastime in Washington” a listen, if only just to recall what the early aughts felt like ’round these parts. And then, last but not least, kick up your heels and stoke your indignation about why the GOP won’t bend to reason on tax rates for the wealthy by indulging in The Kinks’ completely awesome, rockin’ ode to Xmas equality: “Father Christmas.”

Have a safe and happy holiday!

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