Smithsonian Folkways Reissues of Classic Folkways Children's Music Recordings

October 1, 2001

Seasons for Singing

Songs, Rhythms & ChantsALERTA SingsWith Young People in MindAmerican FolkSeasons for Singing, by Ella Jenkins. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD 45031, 2000.

Songs, Rhythms & Chants for the Dance, by Ella Jenkins. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD 45004, 2000.

ALERTA Sings & Canciones para el Recreo/Songs for the Playground, by Suni Paz. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD 45055, 2000.

6: Songs with Young People in Mind, by Richard Dyer-Bennet. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD 45053, 2000.

American Folk, Game & Activity Songs for Children, by Pete Seeger. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD 45056, 2000. 

Among the more recent releases from the Smithsonian Folkways label are five CDs of reissued material from four major artists of the post-World War II urban folk music revival. All five CDs contain material originally intended primarily for younger listeners. On two of the CDs are recordings from Ella Jenkins, the premiere and most prolific performer of children's music in the United States during the last half of the twentieth century. The remaining CDs feature reissued recordings from three other significant revivalist performers—one CD is from another singer associated with the children's music scene, Suni Paz, while the other two CDs are from two performers not generally thought of as practitioners of children's music: Richard Dyer-Bennet and Pete Seeger.

With an output of approximately thirty albums for the Folkways and Smithsonian Folkways labels, Ella Jenkins is an icon in children's music circles (the liner notes to these compact discs reveal that she has appeared on national television alongside both Mr. Rogers and Barney). Jenkins' two albums recently reissued by Smithsonian Folkways showcase her performances of her own songs, of compositions by contemporary songwriters, and of traditional African American songs. It is not difficult when listening to these CDs to identify the qualities that have attracted children to Jenkins' music: her enthusiastic yet relaxed and warm vocals, and her simple yet spirited guitar accompaniment style. Of these two CDs, Seasons for Singing best displays Jenkins' gifts for inspiring strong group singing from untrained vocalists. That album, originally released on LP by Folkways in 1970, culls performances of twelve songs recorded in 1969 during Jenkins' annual summertime singing workshops held in Chicago's St. Paul's Church. Seasons for Singing is distinctive in the fact that, other than Jenkins, all of the singers are girls and boys aged 7 to 14 years old. As Jenkins acknowledges in the album's liner notes, "As you listen to us sing, you won't always hear perfect harmony. You might get a flat note or two, but you'll find joy and the feeling of working together. Communication is there!" One example of this communication can be heard on the call-and-response song "Don't You Do Me Wrong," a Jenkins composition that both revises the African American prison song tradition and reflects the righteous indignation of the civil right movement. The young singers, while harmonizing to Jenkins' lead vocal on this song, imitate the sledgehammers of railroad workers by clanging rhythm sticks. Seasons for Singing is not intended for passive enjoyment; instead, in her liner notes Jenkins encourages young listeners to "become members of the workshop" by singing along with the album. While Smithsonian Folkways did not take full advantage of the CD format for this particular release (which clocks in at only 30 minutes), Seasons for Singing, being a fully realized concept album, is a welcome reissue.

In addition to recording many albums of "children's songs," Jenkins has produced a number of projects exploring the nature and meaning of rhythm. One such album, Songs, Rhythms & Chants for the Dance, encompasses both of Jenkins' primary performance interests: singing and dancing. As a recording artist and as a live performer, Jenkins strove to serve as a kind of shaman, attempting to draw out the inner, often repressed creativity within children (and those adults who would listen), and Songs, Rhythms & Chants for the Dance epitomizes this effort. In liner notes for the CD version of this album, Jenkins conveys her lifelong participation in dancing, whether folk dance (tap), popular dance (disco), or elite dance (ballet). The album offers performances of Jenkins' original songs by a diverse group of musicians in smooth, variously paced arrangements. The album's stated objective is to encourage dancing from listeners: Jenkins acknowledges that "the music on this recording is not ballet music; it is not modern dance music, nor is it a formal Latin musical expression; it is simply melody, harmony, and rhythm to move to." Many who owned the album in its initial configuration doubtless simply enjoyed listening to its inspired, appealingly textured and varied vocal and instrumental performances. The Smithsonian Folkways CD reissue adds, as a rather lengthy though fascinating closing statement for the album, interviews conducted by Jenkins with dance aficionados at every level of participation, from students to professional dancers and choreographers. Hence, the new CD version of Songs, Rhythms & Chants for the Dance presents a more complete celebration of dance and dancing than did the original LP release.

ALERTA Sings & Canciones para el Recreo/Songs for the Playground offers two interesting albums by singer and educator Suni Paz, both of which were first released over two decades ago on Folkways LPs. The acronym ALERTA refers to an educational program—"A Learning Environment Responsive To All"—founded by the Department of Health and Human Services. (According to Paz, the ALERTA program is still active today; in the CD's liner notes she provides instructions for obtaining the program's curriculum materials.) The intent of the ALERTA program is to encourage pride among urban and minority children in being bilingual and culturally non-mainstream. ALERTA Sings, originally released on LP in 1980, was a collaborative effort from a group of music educators, several student singers, and Paz, who was invited to participate in the project because of her musical experience as a recording artist and her expertise in children's folklore and Latin American culture. The album effectively promotes its sponsoring agency's agenda of bilingualism, juxtaposing unaccompanied or sparsely arranged renditions of traditional songs from New World Spanish-speaking cultures with similarly spare versions of African American and English-language Caribbean folk songs. For the non-bilingual, the Smithsonian Folkways CD booklet provides English translations of all songs in Spanish. Strangely, although ALERTA Sings was a collaborative project involving several musicians (mostly singers), the CD booklet does not name participants other than Paz. In any event, Paz was obviously the musical catalyst during these recording sessions, as her performances on the album's Spanish-language songs are more noteworthy than the performances of the English-language songs sung by unnamed singers. Paz even contributed an original composition as a theme song for the album.

While less overtly educational than ALERTA Sings, Canciones para el Recreo/Songs for the Playground, originally released on LP in 1977, is more enjoyable for casual listening. Offering a selection of New World Spanish-language children's songs, Paz is accompanied on this album by an ensemble that combines modern instruments like the electric piano with common folk instruments like the guitar with lesser-known ones such as the charango (a South American strummed instrument with ten strings). Canciones para el Recreo/Songs for the Playground features Paz's engaging vocal interpretations of traditional songs from Argentina and Puerto Rico and works by modern songwriters from those countries, Mexico, and Chile. By combining two of Paz's more distinctive recording projects, the Smithsonian Folkways release can serve as a general introduction to the music traditions from Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas, although the CD's liner notes might have included considerably more contextual information about the songs and the cultures that produced them.

Although under-appreciated today, Richard Dyer-Bennet was one of the leading figures during the 1950s- and early 1960s-era urban folk music revival. 6: Songs with Young People in Mind, from 1958, is the second Dyer-Bennet album originally released on LP by the Dyer-Bennet Records label to be reissued on CD by Smithsonian Folkways, which intends eventually to re-release thirteen other classic Dyer-Bennet albums on CD. (All fifteen albums were released between 1955 and 1964 on Dyer-Bennet Records, a label that was an early example of the music industry phenomenon of a significant performer leaving a commercial recording company to create a small independent label in order to gain greater artistic control over his own career.) Dyer-Bennet's unique artistry—his Irish tenor-influenced, semi-operatic vocals and his simple yet evocative nylon-stringed guitar accompaniment—grace 6: Songs with Young People in Mind, a relatively short set (just over 35 minutes) of mostly commonplace traditional songs (such as "Aunt Rhody" and "Froggie Went A-courtin' "). The educational utility of this CD reissue is minimal since its lyric booklet provides little or no information about the various songs (Smithsonian Folkways provides only Dyer-Bennet's original song notes, which are anecdotal and inconclusive). In all likelihood, the main audience for this CD is not children but rather long-time fans of Dyer-Bennet's music and academic scholars who research the urban folk music revival.

The last of the five recent reissues of "children's music" from the Smithsonian Folkways label is Pete Seeger's American Folk, Game & Activity Songs for Children, a CD incorporating two of Seeger's Folkways LPs: American Folk Songs for Children from 1953, and American Game and Activity Songs for Children from 1962. The first album contains Seeger's versions of traditional songs transcribed by his stepmother Ruth Crawford Seeger in her classic 1948 book, American Folk Songs for Children, while the second album focused on traditional "play-party" songs from across the U.S.A. Seeger's low-key and warm—if at times unpolished—performance style sounds much more contemporary than Dyer-Bennet's formalist approach; hence, young listeners today will inevitably prefer American Folk, Game & Activity Songs for Children over 6: Songs with Young People in Mind. (Seeger was, after all, a major influence on the evolution of rock music, while Dyer-Bennet's reputation has waned since the 1960s.) For more than half a century on records and in concert, Seeger has projected intimacy and connection; these qualities, clearly displayed on his early Folkways albums, have attracted a remarkably large and loyal fan-base. The two albums grouped together on this reissue memorably capture the assured, warm baritone voice of Seeger's younger years as well as his sprightly banjo playing. These particular recordings are not weighted down by the strident politicizing that infused his concert performances and his many recordings of topical/political material. Ironically, Seeger took the opportunity presented by this CD reissue of "children's music" to reassert his public stance of political correctness. In a comment included in the reissue's liner notes, Seeger refutes the social attitudes embedded in some of the folk songs he chose to record years ago: "These recordings were made a half century ago when I was not as conscious as I am now of the need to make our country more truly democratic for women as well as men, for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, whether they arrived on these shores recently or thousands of years ago. I hope that young people who hear this recording will continue to use the folk process to change some of the words!"

Is Seeger realistic to think that his children's recordings from many decades ago—even if they're on CD—will be embraced by the youth of today? It seems more likely that all five CDs of "children's music" recently reissued by Smithsonian Folkways (including Seeger's) will appeal today mostly to the very people who listened to those recordings in the past—people who now as adults are nostalgic for some reconnection to their youths during the "golden years" of the postwar urban folk music revival, a time when the act of earnestly singing simple, meaningful traditional songs and tradition-based songs was as natural and life-affirming as breathing.

1882 Last modified on October 22, 2013