1. Little Liza Jane
In 1993 I was working as an assistant teacher at the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery School in New York City. It was a revelatory year for so many reasons, mostly because of the children and all they taught me. But musically, two things happened that year that changed my life. I found a copy of Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child by Woody Guthrie, and I heard the music of Elizabeth Cotten for the first time.
Having Grown up on the music of the 1970s, you could say I received a great pop music education, but Elizabeth Cotten’s music turned me on my head. Her patient, gentle voice and virtuosic guitar playing stopped me in my tracks. It was disarmingly still, yet commanding, steadfast and true. Hearing her music made me want to find that place in myself, somewhere deeper and stronger. I needed it to be a better teacher and musician.
The songs that jumped off the vinyl of the Woody Guthrie record were the first songs I heard that accessed the poetry of the emerging language of children. One of my jobs as an assistant teacher was to write down the children’s descriptions of their artwork. Woody’s songs sounded like the stories I would hear from my students as they explained their drawings to me. I cherished these windows into their imaginations; as a songwriter it was inspiring, their minds were so free. I heard that same freedom in Woody’s lyrics.
I brought the music of Elizabeth Cotten and Woody Guthrie into the classroom. We also learned the songs of the Carter Family and Leadbelly. The kids loved it, I loved it – we had a time.
I was able to teach for two more years before touring with my band took me away from the classroom. Since them I’ve been making children’s records, exploring many genres of music. When Folkways called I was thrilled, humbled, and inspired that our work had found appreciative ears at the record label whose music has profoundly impacted my life.
So here it is, You Are My Little Bird. I hope that you take it into your hearts, homes, travels, and journeys, and that you find peace and joy along the way. We had fun making it for you. We kept it homemade and personal, the sound of a family and a few friends (and the birds nesting outside the window, and the frogs in the pond… and the furnace in the boiler room) making music together. Here’s hoping you’ll make some music with yours.
In different times, through different voices, “Liza Jane” has lived countless lives, and no two performers seem to interpret this song the same way. We Made it a song about having friends in many places, a reflection of our years on the road with our band, and the special things that can happen in those places. We had to leave out many of our favorite cities that were difficult to rhyme, but if you can think of a good rhyme for “Portland,” “Boston,” or “Olympia,” let us know!
2. Who’s My Pretty Baby
One of my favorite songs from Woody Guthrie’s Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child is this one. I’ve been Singing its song to my daughter Storey since the day she was born, and it never fails to make us both smile.
Storey’s Love of Elephants drew us to this beautiful Japanese song. We dedicate it to the Thai Elephant Orchestra and to our friends at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island – Katie, Alice and Ginny.
4. Little Bird, Little Bird
My favorite recording of this song is by Pete Seeger on his Smithsonian Folkways album Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big Animal Folk Songs). We listened to it every morning last summer while driving to camp with Storey’s cousin Athena who sings it with us here. The end of the track features the sounds of real birds outside our home – a Black-throated Blue Warbler and some of her friends.
5. Three Little Birds
One day last year, Storey came home from school singing the verse to this song she had learned in music class. Although we had heard this song a few times before, it was as if we were hearing it for the first time.
6. What Goes On
Our first children’s record, You Are My Flower, has a track called “Rock and Roll” that features the sounds of my nephew and niece rocking out with us when they were toddlers. Now they are big kids, and we still make music with them in our band Messy Chocolate. We thought that covering a Velvet Underground song was the perfect way to start a band. Try it at home!
7. Pa Na Tu Ri (Springtime outing)
Our violinist and friend, Jean Cook, taught us this song and sings it with us here. We couldn’t believe we found another bird song, and in Korean!
8. Buckeye Jim
How I love this magically surreal song! While reading Folk Song U.S.A. By John Lomax, I discovered that Fletcher Collins, a distant relative of my husband Daniel, was the first person to document this song. Fletcher then taught the song to his friend Burl Ives. Thank you, Fletcher! Storey’s friend Annika came over to sing this with us, then her mom Kristen joined in, then Storey’s Lola (the word for grandmother in the Philippines) started to sing, then Uncle Miggy…
9. Peace Like a River
This is a simple and inspiring song that speaks for itself. Storey plays the harmonica here.
10. Los Pollitos (The Little Chicks)
I learned this song from a Folkways record by Suni Paz called Alerta Sings and Songs from the Playground. Suni has dedicated a lifetime to spreading the message of peace and cultural understanding through her work as a musician and educator.
11. Winter’s Come and Gone
This is the first song we recorded for this album in our attic in Providence, Rhode Island, long before we knew we were moving to the mountains and making an album about birds. We forgot the last verse; our apologies to the songwriters, the great Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
12. Little Wing
Our friend Kirsten joins us here on Neil Young’s song from his album Hawks and Doves and in other songs on this album playing the flute. Kirsten is a great friend, ER doctor, and the best flautist in the Catskills.
13. Lily Pond
This song was written by Vashti Bunyan, a British folk singer and songwriter. She recorded one beautiful album, Just Another Diamond Day, in 1969, then left her life as a musician in London behind, moved to the country with her family and her cow named Bess, and didn’t make another record for 35 years. I am so glad she is making music again that the world can hear.
14. The North Wind
I used to sing this song with my students at the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery in New York City. On bleak winter days the children loved to sing and act out the plight of the cold little bird. We are joined here by Mr. John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, another wonderful Woodstock neighbor, playing autoharp. When Daniel and I recorded this song with him at Levon Helm’s barn, we spent most of the session looking at each other in happy disbelief.
15. If You Listen
This song, originally recorded by French singer Françoise Hardy, is all about how listening can be a magical experience. We tried to arrange and record it in a way that would encourage people to listen imaginatively, not just to the words, but to a host of different sounds – distant birds, a harmonium drone, fingers gently tapping on the keys of a flute. All sounds can be musical, even silence, the rustling of leaves, the fluttering of wings.
16. Down in the Valley
Daniel used to sing this song with his father, Michael Storey Littleton. John Sebastian joins us again, this time on harmonica.
17. Grassy Grass Grass
I think this is my favorite Woody Guthrie song of all; for me it is a perfect bedtime mantra. In his writing about children’s music, Woody expressed his wish that people not follow his songs like a static text and sing them word for word. He wanted people to make up their own versions, to cultivate their own sense of creative freedom by listening to and learning from the children in their lives, something I strive to do every day. But Woody’s poetry is too powerful to simply listen to, and sometimes I need to sing it just the way he wrote it.
“At the top of the heap of folk record labels is Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. As the name might suggest, the label issues substantially important and beautiful music in a genre that is often overlooked by the general public. Elizabeth Mitchell, a woman who’s name might not be instantly recognizable to you, is one of the genre’s nouveau masters. A position as an assistant teacher and a thorough listening of Woody Guthrie’s Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child put her on the path that would ultimately lead to the recording of “You Are My Little Bird”. Arrangements are kept sparse, with Mitchell’s warm, full voice entering the room like the scent of fresh-baked Christmas cookies. Songs like “Little Liza Jane” will immediately make the listener drift back to childhood. Mitchell’s niece, herself a child, duets nearly pitch-perfect on the sweet “Little Bird, Little Bird.” Albums like this are what sustain my hope for the future of music. “You Are My Little Bird” is heartily recommended.” -The Kenosha WI News – Dan Pavelich.
“If, like me, you are familiar with Elizabeth Mitchell’s work, you will not be disappointed by this latest album – it retains the simplicity and homemade sound of the earlier albums, while expanding upon it in new and delightful ways. If, like me a number of years ago, you are unfamiliar with Elizabeth Mitchell’s work, You Are My Little Bird is an excellent introduction. The album is a gift to kids and adults alike. Highly recommended.” Read more – Zooglobble – by Stefan Sheperd
“You know you’re doin’ somethin’ right when Smithsonian Folkways comes a-knockin’. And I’m pretty sure this label is well aware they have the next Ella Jenkins on their hands… Having become as adept as the aforementioned Ms. Jenkins at song collecting and interpretation, Elizabeth Mitchell is certainly in a position to become one of America’s great music voices. This album is the aural equivalent of gauzy curtains billowing in the summer breeze, so, put it on, enjoy the vibe, and be happy about the fact that together you and your kids can listen to wonderfully performed music penned by writers as disparate as Woody Guthrie, Lou Reed, and Vashti Bunyan. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.” Read more
“Kids Music That Rocks” by Warren Truitt, Childrens Librarian at the New York City Public Library