1. So Glad I’m Here – Bessie Jones
Liz: The original recording of this song is on a record called So Glad I’m Here: Songs and Games from the Georgia Sea Islands recorded in 1973 and released on Rounder Records. The original lyrics in the chorus are, “So glad I’m here in Jesus name.” We adapted the song so that everyone, those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t, could feel the joy this song can create. Gratitude is universal! That album is out of print but Rounder has since put out a compilation of Bessie Jones recordings called Put Your Hand on Your Hip and Let Your Backbone Slip: Songs and Games from the Georgia Sea Islands. Another place to hear Bessie Jones Recordings is on the Alan Lomax Sounds of the South Collection (Atlantic), a great resource for anyone interested in American blues, gospel, folk and fife & drum music. Sweet Honey in the Rock has a real bluesy version of this song on their children’s record All for Freedom (Music for Little People). Bessie Jones also co-authored a book called Step It Down Games, Plays, Songs and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage.
2. Skip to My Lou – Traditional
Dan: Everyone knows this song, but Leadbelly’s version is the best – on the record Leadbelly Sings for Children (Smithsonian Folkways). What’s a ‘lou’? A song?
Liz: According to an old Girl Scout songbook we were given for Christmas this year, a “lou” is a dialect term for “sweetheart”. Storey calls this one “Skippy Lou!”, we almost changed the title. Make up your own verses, the less sense you make, the better.
Dan: More homework to do on this one!
3. Ladybug Picnic – Donald Hadley + Bud Luckey
Liz: This is a wonderful animated song from the early days of Sesame Street. The original recording has a great rollicking hoedown feel. It’s on a Sesame Street video compilation called “Sing Yourself Silly.”
Dan: Liz and Warren kept trying to get me to play this song faster and faster. It made my hands hurt.
4. Hey Bo Diddley – Ellas McDaniel
Liz: My father grew up in Washington Heights in NYC and was a teenager in the 1950′s when he went to see Bo Diddley play two nights in a row at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Fast forward about 50 years to my niece Charlotte (aka Coco-Puff) gleefully singing along with Aaron Carter to his cover of “I Want Candy”. We wrote the second verse to bring their two worlds together, and my dream is that one day Grandpa Mike will take Coco to hear some real rock and roll.
Dan: Bo Diddley’s rhythmic ideas, guitar playing, and vocal delivery have been so influential to rock and roll and rhythm and blues, that it is impossible to imagine what music would sound like without his signature. Any collection of his 1950s recordings is essential listening. From the Rolling Stones “Not Fade Away” to Bow Wow Wow doing “I Want Candy”, and everyone who ever tried to play “Who Do You Love?”, Bo Diddley’s impact is enormous and unmistakable. It’s easy to find the Chess Anthology entitled His Best. Or you can go to Big Deal Records in Brooklyn and try to trick the owner into playing you his 78′s.
5. Crawdad – Traditional
Liz: Daniel’s sister Cecilia is a great fiddle player, and last year she found a book of bluegrass fiddle solos and played them every night as a lullaby for her son Rafi to fall asleep to. While we were visiting for the holidays, we had the privilege of listening to these nightly serenades and Crawdad became our favorite. Rafi sang it for us and we included his version on the record. We found a recording of Pete Seeger singing it on an old Folkways vinyl EP called Songs to Grow On Volume 2: School Days. We thought the crawdad’s should “fly” instead of “fry”. From what we have heard, this is a real old-time song.
Dan: Magical realism wins out once again. People just don’t sing about the crawdad man anymore or going down to the crawdad hole. Times have changed.
6. Alphabet Dub
Dan: We listen to a lot of dub music, some favorites are Augustus Pablo, and King Tubby, particularly Tubby’s work with Yabby You. The alphabet became a popular song for us to sing with our child and one time we were driving around listening to a Yabby You jam called “Big Youth Fights Against Capitalism” and Liz started singing the alphabet and it became a party. Storey has been saying “Yabby You” since before she could say “apple”. We built the song around a Tubby dub called “Loving Dub” from a record called King Tubby Roots of Dub (Clocktower). The instrumental track, which sounds a lot like “Johnny Too Bad” by the Slickers (easily found on Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come soundtrack on Mango Records) was played by Warn Defever (His Name Is Alive) and Fred Thomas (Saturday Looks Good to Me).
7. Car Car – Woody Guthrie
Liz: We learned this song from Woody Guthrie’s children’s album Nursery Days (Smithsonian Folkways), and have since heard many stories of our friends having grown up singing this in the car with their parents. I spent most of my car time as a child listening to AM radio in the back seat, imagining a tiny band of four guys playing “Dust in the Wind” and “Wildfire” inside the dashboard, but that’s another song history section. Our beloved free-jazzing niece, Athena, sang along on this one.
Dan: Woody Guthrie’s children’s songs are indispensable recordings. They are free, creative, hilarious, personal, truthful and above all, fun songs that we felt lucky to listen to long before we had a child. Part of Woody Guthrie’s unique genius is that he convinces you that anybody can write a song, that the best poetry and the best music are right there in the way you talk and sing with the people you love, the people you work and play with all the time. He was just better than anybody else at pulling those words and those melodies out of the air and giving them to everyone. Thank you Woody Guthrie!
8. Ooby Dooby – Wade Moore + Dick Penner (recorded by Roy Orbison)
Dan: On the way to our first kids music show – last year at the Y in NYC – we were listening to Roy Orbison and it occurred to tme that we should play Ooby Dooby at the show. I thought it was a pretty good “kids song”, Storey liked it, so we played it. Warn brings Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite into the rockabilly, and a few lyrics got personalized. Orbison wrote and performed some of the most devastating, tragic, beautifully sad songs anyone has ever done, and “Ooby Dooby”, though one of his earliest “hits”, isn’t really representative of the high drama of his greatest work. Rockabilly wasn’t really his main thing, but the guy could pretty much do it all, and his rockers are all classic. The Rhino collection, Roy Orbison’s 18 Greatest Hits, is a great introduction to his work.
9. You Are My Sunshine – Jimmie Davis
Dan: Written in 1940 by Jimmie Davis, a musician and professor of history and social studies, who later became governor of Louisiana. The Carter Family can be heard singing the song on a collection of recordings from 1939, On Border Radio Vol. 3 (Arhoolie). Maybe they downloaded the demo tape from Napster! Great interpretations of this song are out there – some more “kid friendly” than others. The Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (Mercury) has a nice version of this song and Low does a brilliant version on their first record I Could Live in Hope (Vernon Yard). I love Brian Wilson’s version from the “Smile” sessions, though it’s kind of a downer. (There are a ton of Smile bootlegs out there with varying degrees of quality, thou the VigoTone set is amazing if you can find it). Ray Charles’ version is on the Modern Sounds of Country & Western Music CD, (the LP is Volume Two on ABC Paramount). Ray Charles’ “country” recordings are incredible documents of the time, where Count Basie-like horn sections slug it out with lush, gooey chorale harmonies of The Jack Halloran Singers, while Charles detonates yet another bomb in American music…
Lix: My father remembers this as the first song he ever learned when he was a child spending summers away from the NYC heat with his aunt and uncle in West Hurley, NY.
10. Going Down the Road - Traditional, but really it’s an Elizabeth Cotten song
Dan: When our daughter was an infant, she was not a big fan of long car rides, so we would sing this song in solidarity and hope that she would be comforted! Elizabeth Cotten owns this song as far as we are concerned. Whether or not she wrote it, it is her song. We learned it from her, play it in homage to her style, and in our minds she owns the copyright on “honey babe”. Elizabeth Cotten records are treasures of the world. They are mystical treatises of guitar playing, singing and story telling. Some of the most beautiful music there is. Our recommendation is Elizabeth Cotten: Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (Smithsonian Folkways). The Grateful Dead covered this song a lot, and I bet Bob Dylan did too.
Liz: I had no idea the Grateful Dead ever played this song until we did it live at an Ida show in Detroit last year and someone said “hot Grateful Dead cover!”
11. Black Jack Baby (David) – A.P. Carter
Dan: This song is derived from a Carter Family song, “Black Jack David”, about a gypsy who seduces a woman away from her husband and children. “Last light I slept in a warm feather bed right beside my husband and baby, tonight I sleep on the cold cold ground in the arms of Black Jack David”. It’s a classic Carter Family song, weaving betrayal, love, death, and darkness into the sunniest melodies and harmonies you ever heard. We took the music and the basic arrangement and sang about a baby who rolls into town making all kinds of noises, and all the ladies get charmed. Storey is crying at the end, trying to figure out why her Mom is in the “vocal booth” and not kissing her nose. Check out The Carter Family Clinch Mountain Treasures (County Records/Sony) to hear “Black Jack David” and all the other songs they recorded on October 3rd, 1940, or Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music Vol. 4 (Revenant) for a broader context. This song was probably around for a couple hundred years before A.P put his name on it.
12. Jubilee – Traditional
Dan: This is an old time song that Warren Defever found from an out-of-print book on folk lyrics. None of us has ever heard a recorded version of the song. We were suspocious about whether the lyrics were not “altered” by Warn, but he claims he didn’t change anything(!). Warn gave us the chords and the words and the basic structure, and we arranged it. As far as we know, the only other place to hear this one is Warn Defever’s I Want You to Live a Hundred Years record.
Liz: Storey Calls this one “Live and Learn!”.
13. Here Comes My Baby – Cat Stevens
Dan: This song, like “Lovers Lane”, is another one of those “not really kids”-kids songs. Since our baby stays up ’til midnight all the time, already loves talking on the phone, and because Kalil Gibran was probably right about how on some essential level we cannot “possess” or do anything but learn from and try to nurture the enormous spirits that our children possess, we felt, strangely, like this was kind of a deep song to do. The song was on Cat Stevens’ first record Matthew & Son (Decca) and his version is also featured in the film and on the soundtrack for Rushmore. The Tremeloes had a big hit with it in the sixties.
Liz: Yo La Tengo does a beautiful version of this song on their fantastic covers record Fakebook (Restless/Bar None), a longtime favorite album of mine. And as far as all the Kalil Gibran stuff goes, I don’t know what Daniel is talking about. Storey will always live at home with Mom and Dad and never have any boyfriends or girlfriends.
14. Three is the Magic number – Robert Dorough
Dan: The most inspired Schoolhouse Rock tune, not very old-timey, and a definite indicator of when we grew up. We love this song, even though it omits the mystical female power of the quaternity. Since we were about to have our first child when we recorded this song, three sounded like a perfectly magical number to sing about. Our favorite version of this song belongs to De La Soul on their album 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy).
15. Froggy Went a Courtin’ – Traditional
Dan: Classic old time folk song about a mouse getting married to a frog, arranged by Warren Defever. Though one could probably read all kinds of political allegory into this one, it is an incredibly imaginative and evocative children’s song, with a cast of silver moths, bumble bees, frogs, mice, trees, snakes and more. Bob Dylan does a good (rougher) version on Good As I Been To You (Columbia), and Warren’s version is unavailable but no less brilliant for it. A quick web search brought me to the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music site, where there is a study on the history of the song that traces it into the mists of 16th century Scottish folklore, without neglecting to mention old Japanese folktales about a mouse’s wedding.
16. Goodnight Irene – Leadbelly
Dan: Around the time we did our second recording session for this record, we were spending a lot of time listening to Mississippi John Hurt’s Last Sessions LP (Vanguard Records). The performances are time stopping in their gentleness and depth and his version of this song provided the inspiration for us to take a shot at recording it ourselves. Goodnight Irene is a classic ode to suicide, and we changed it a bit for the babies. Hurt’s “great notion” about jumping in the river and drowning sounds, in his hands, like peaceful resignation in the face of mortality, and it is undeniably powerful and necessary. But for the kids we thought the B52′s had a better idea for what to do when you aren’t sure which way you’re going on the way home. Hurt claims to have learned the song from a Leadbelly record, and that is the place to turn for the definitive Irene. Check out Leadbelly Sings for Children (Folkways) or Leadbelly’s Last Sessions (Folkways) which is an amazing record. Some of the most mind blowing acoustic guitar playing ever recorded can be found on a great collection called Mississippi John Hurt Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings (Columbia Legacy/Okeh).