I know, I know, it took me way too long to figure out the winner of my "Top 50 Kids Songs of All Time Contest." Just waay too much to do... In any case, the rules specified that the winner had to identify my #1 song, which was... "Twinkle Twinkle/ABC/Baa Baa Black Sheep." Four people correctly pegged that song at #1, which meant I had to go to the next tiebreaker, which was correctly guessing other songs in my Top 5. Seeing as Ellen listed the same melody twice, I didn't think that counted, so the winner is... Clark, who also included "Miss Mary Mack" in his list. Congratulations to Clark, who is at the moment selecting his CD prize, and thanks to everyone for participating and reading!
Without any further ado, here they are, the top 5 kids songs of all time. (OK, a little further ado.) Previous entries Songs 6 through 10 Songs 11 through 15 Songs 16 through 20 Songs 21 through 25 Songs 26 through 30 Songs 31 through 35 Songs 36 through 40 Songs 41 through 45 Songs 46 through 50 (Oh, and I'll figure out the contest winner soon.) 5. "Lullaby" - Johannes Brahms: Yeah, I didn't really want to cover too many lullabies here, but this one is so common that it seemed churlish not to include it. Our daughter calls it the "Doo doo doo" song, but we usually get bored of singing that sound to the familiar melody ("Lullaby / And goodnight / Something something and something.."). Try quacking the melody. Not particularly soothing, but a fun bedtime routine nonetheless. I am not going to link to the samples of Celine Dion's, Aaron Neville's, or Olivia Newton-John's take on the song, because I am going to make the blanket assumption that your child or niece or grandchild or random kid off the streets will prefer your version to what I assume is an incredibly overwrought version by an actual professional singer. 4. "Miss Mary Mack" - traditional: Sure, it's traditional (dates back to the 19th century at least), but I've always associated it with the first lady of American kids music, Ella Jenkins. I was (pleasantly) surprised to hear my daughter singing it one day at home -- they're still teaching it in kindergarten, thousands of miles away from Chicago. Hand-clappin', jump-ropin', rockin' out, whatever, it's still an simple tune with fun lyrics. (You can hear a traditional version here, sample a Sweet Honey in the Rock tribute here or a sample of Erin Flynn's half-traditional/half-revisionist take here.) 3. "Three is a Magic Number" - Bob Dorough: Like this was going to be anywhere else on this list. Here's the thing about this song -- I've yet to hear a bad version of it. Blind Melon? Check. The Jellydots? Check. Jack Johnson blended the song with lyrics about recycling to energetic effect on "The 3 Rs." It teaches math, it teaches history, and it's incredibly catchy. (And if those YouTube and Myspace references aren't enough, here's the original.) 2. "You Are My Sunshine" - Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell: This is one of those kids' songs that's more popular, I think, because people don't bother singing the verses, which aren't necessarily full of unconditional love ("you have shattered all my dreams"), and instead sing the chorus. It's not that the chorus is all sunshine and light, either, but it's close enough (or with a tweak or two, "and I love you more everyday..," completely innocuous). And that melody -- so totally singable. (You can listen to Davis' 1931 recording here. You can also listen to Elizabeth Mitchell's version here -- click on "Sunshine," then "Listen.") 1. "ABCs/Twinkle Twinkle/Baa Baa Black Sheep" - trad. lyrics, music is a French folk tune ("Ah, vous dirai-je, maman") arranged by Louis Le Maire: I really don't know what else to say here. It's a melody that's been adapted to at least three classic songs, songs that are part of the English-language canon, really. (Which isn't to say that other countries with other languages aren't familiar with it, either.) People (including me) think that Mozart wrote the melody (he didn't -- he just adapted it.) That song is so ingrained in your head that you can sing it over and over half-asleep at a 2 AM feeding. There's no need for a sample -- go ahead and sing it to your kid, your friends' kids, whomever. There is no other choice. #1.
Let me tell you, it is no easier trying to figure out how to order the top sixth through tenth kids songs of all time than it is ordering songs 46 through 50. We're getting to songs that are ingrained in our (English-speaking North American) DNA, or should be. Previous entries: Songs 11 through 15 Songs 16 through 20 Songs 21 through 25 Songs 26 through 30 Songs 31 through 35 Songs 36 through 40 Songs 41 through 45 Songs 46 through 50 10. "Mary Had a Little Lamb" - Sarah Josepha Hale (words) / Lowell Mason (melody): The fact that this agrarian-based song still has currency in spite of today's urban/suburban lifestyle speaks volumes of the text's popularity. (Wikipedia says that, like Academy Award-bait movies, it's inspired by true events.) Of course, the fact that you can play the melody, say, a Little Tikes one-octave (no-sharps, no-flats) technicolor toy piano (hypothetically speaking, of course) doesn't hurt, either. (You know the tune, so instead listen to Thomas Edison repeat the poem -- no music -- on the 50th anniversary of the first-ever audio recording of, well, anything here. Or you can watch Stevie Ray Vaughan burn through his version here. Or, and I'm not necessarily recommending this, you can watch Paul McCartney and Wings give their rendition here. People, why do you hate melody so much?) 9. "I've Been Working on the Railroad" - traditional, mostly: It's three, three, three songs in one! It's a railroad song, it's a nonsense set of lyrics, and it's a song about kitchens and banjos. (That last section was actually an older song credited to J.H. Cave folded into this one.) One of the depressing sidenotes of this whole Top 50 songs project is finding the racist undertones of many of the more traditional songs -- the first printed version of the song was done in minstrel dialect and was partially racist. And "Dinah" was a generic name for an African-American woman. Guess I have yet another reason for singing my kids' names instead from now on. (Listen to a ukelele-based version here. Raffi's and Laurie Berkner's versions are excellent, as is Johnny Bregar's, which you can listen to a sample of here.) 8. "Down by the Bay" - traditional: Y'know, if every time I came home, my mother insisted on asking utterly non-sensical questions, maybe I'd stay away, too. "For the last time, Mom, I've never seen a whale with a freakin' polka-dot tail! [Breaks into uncontrollable sobs]" Having said that, it's an animal song and a rhyming-challenge song, probably the best in that regard. (Raffi's version is the standard, but Candy Band's version at the link is a little more, uh, rocking. Loretta Lucas' version on the Family Hootenanny comp is appealing, too -- listen to a sample here.) 7. "Itsy Bitsy Spider" - traditional: Such a simple little song, the best hand/finger-motion song out there. Of course, as Ralph Covert noted on one of his Ralph's World songs, it's a very existentialist song -- the spider climbs up, the rain washes the spider down, and the spider goes back up again. (Now playing: The Camus Children's Album!) See Devon's thoughts here... though, I'm sorry, "eensey weensey" just sounds wrong to me. (Despite the fact that Gwendolyn agrees with Devon, I like her version -- click on the Get Up & Dance album to listen. Listen to a snippet of Ralph's version here, watch Carly Simon work it into her last big hit here. I remember that video. I don't remember it being nearly 7 minutes long, though...) 6. "Freight Train" - Elizabeth Cotten: This is a kids' song that was, well, written by a kid. Cotten wrote this song when she was just 11 or 12 years old. Now, she didn't record this song until nearly 50 years afterwards, when through a series of coincidences, she ended up working in the Seeger household. (Yes, those Seegers.) And it was at that point, when she was approaching 60, that she started her singing career. She toured for more than 30 years, until she was 90+ years of age. I love the way the song slides in between major and minor keys. It's about trains! (But, uh, much more.) (Watch Cotten perform her song here. I've also always been partial to Elizabeth Mitchell's rendition, which you can listen to here (click on "Flower," then "Listen").)
We're in the homestretch, folks. Unfortunately, because they missed the top 10, these songs just missed being on the "Top 50 Kids Songs of All Time" tour that will be coming to America arenas and sheds this summer. Previous entries: Songs 16 through 20 Songs 21 through 25 Songs 26 through 30 Songs 31 through 35 Songs 36 through 40 Songs 41 through 45 Songs 46 through 50 15. "Five Little Monkeys" - traditional: I'm not sure there's really a set melody for this song, it's all in the lyrics. They jump on the bed, they fall off, their mother (and it's always their mother) calls the doctor. One would think that the co-payment system of today's modern American medical system would incentivize the mother to not make 5 calls to the doctor, so perhaps these are Canadian monkeys. (For more on the song, check out this timely post -- including video -- from Devon at Head, Shoulders, Knees, and all that....) 14. "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" - traditional: Speaking of head, shoulders, and knees, this might just be the best movement song I know. Teaches body parts, gets the kids moving, and is perfectly adaptable to other body parts ("Knuckles, elbows, neck and waist..."). I mean, I do feel like I'm doing calisthenics when I'm singing along, but its secret weapon is an elegant melody. (Mama Lisa has a recording plus lyrics in several languages here. Perfect for those Swedish immersion classes.) 13. "Old MacDonald" - traditional: We're definitely in the "best song about X" portion of the list, and this, simply, is the best song about animals. Everybody knows the melodya and everybody has fun listing animals whose sounds are unknown and, therefore, available for making up. (What sound does a giraffe make? I like to think of it as an "Ooooop.") The most creative versions, of course, are the ones that talk about different things that the farmer might have. (My favorite reworking by far is Raffi's at the end of Singable Songs for the Very Young. Listen to a sample here.) 12. "The Ants Go Marching" - traditional: It's actually based on the Civil War song, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" (Newsradio fans have their own ending), and so it partially distinguishes itself by not being an all so cheery major chord song. It's a counting song, it's a rhyming song, and it's got rain in it, so speaking as a rain-deprived desert dweller, it's always very soothing. (Ralph Covert has a nice version on Songs for Wiggleworms, but Owen Duggan's jazzy version might be my favorite.) 11. "The Wheels on the Bus" - traditional: Wah-wah-wah! Wah-wah-wah! The babies on the bus go wah-wah-wah! It's a kids' song that lets you mock your whiny kid! OK, in the end the parents love them, but still. And talk about adaptable -- I sing this song every week (with much different lyrics) in the baby-and-me swimming lessons I'm taking with our son. Oh, and it's the best song about buses, bar none. (Devon again is spot-on with his thoughts. Hear a sample of Raffi's version here.)
Ooooh. Top 20. We're definitely getting into "you should definitely know these" territory. With this entry, your opportunity to enter my contest has now ended. I know there have been a number of entries submitted, but I haven't really looked at them. Might be interesting now that I know what my Top 5 are. Songs 16 through 20 Songs 21 through 25 Songs 26 through 30 Songs 31 through 35 Songs 36 through 40 Songs 41 through 45 Songs 46 through 50 20. "Hokey Pokey" - traditional: This far into the list, the songs here are usually easily adpatable to whatever variations you want to provide, which helps keep the song itself fresh. So if you want to put your patella in, or gluteous maximus in, or if you're a pirate, your pegleg in, go ahead. My own memory of this song is attempting to do this on roller skates. High comedy. (Listen to Dan Zanes -- with an assist from Father Goose -- give his take here. 19. "De Colores" - traditional: There was a point, very early on in our children's music lives, when probably half of our CDs had some version of this traditional Spanish-language folk song somewhere in the track listing. This is probably why my wife strongly dislikes this song. To this day, I can sing (phonetically) "Daaaaay" and not even get to "Colores" before she gives me "the look." Despite this, and the fact that a good English translation just does not exist, it has a beautiful, loping melody that conveys the point even if you don't understand much Spanish. (Go here for a bad English translation and Nana Mouskouri's version of the song.) 18. "Mama Don't Allow" - Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport: I just found out that this song was written by a man who was known by the name "Cow Cow." It was not his given name (mama don't allow no odd names on the birth certificate, apparently), but I kinda like it. The song, which encourages listener insubordination of the best kind (it's as if Mo Willems wrote Don't Let The Pigeon Stomp His Feet!), is a great music and movement song. (Hear a snippet of Fox & Branch's version or Brady Rymer's version.) 17. "Oh Susanna" - Stephen Foster: 160 years old this year, Wikipedia describes the lyrics here as "nonsense verse," which worried me, because the lyrics make perfect sense to me. OK, "It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry," doesn't make perfect sense, but it's songwriter's license. Kids love the "Oh Susanna" part. (Thankfully, Foster's shudderingly racist verse is no longer used.) (I kinda like Brian's energetic if slightly off-key version on the We Are... The Laurie Berkner Band DVD, and YouTube offers a copyright-unclear version here.) 16. "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain" - traditional: First printed in Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag (see my review of Dan Zanes' take on the book), the melody is what sells the piece. Oh, and the ad libs artists throw in when they're singing about, say, wool pajamas ("itch, scratch" says Laurie Berkner). And I say we throw the part about killing the rooster back into common usage. Kids gotta know where their dino-nuggets are coming from, though I guess they offer tofu dino-nuggets now, too. (Oh, you can find tons of great versions -- Laurie Berkner, Raffi, and Pete Seeger, to name just three -- but this made my day.)
Once again, somebody asked when the next entry in this series would be posted just as I planning the post. My readers are nothing if not persistent and possibly endowed with mind-reading abilities. Just another side benefit of reading this website. With this entry, your opportunity to enter my contest to guess the Top 5 is rapidly disappearing. All entries are due before I post songs 16 through 20, which I expect to do this upcoming week. Winner gets a free CD. You might want to look at the previous entries... Songs 26 through 30 Songs 31 through 35 Songs 36 through 40 Songs 41 through 45 Songs 46 through 50 25. "Teddy Bears' Picnic" - John Walter Bratton (music) / Jimmy Kennedy (lyrics): Amazing what you learn in putting these lists together. Did you know the music for this song was written exactly 100 years ago? And then when words were added 25 years later, the resulting recording sold more than one million copies? (Thanks, Wikipedia!) The lyrics are probably what amuses the kiddos, but I love the way the melody bounces up and around. Recorded by many (Trout Fishing in America and Garcia/Grisman, among others), but why not listen to the original million-seller here? 24. "We Are the Dinosaurs" - Laurie Berkner: Long after Jack's Big Music Show has ended production, long after CDs have stopped production for some method of music distribution we can't even fathom, little kids will be singing this song. The earworm-y beginning -- "we are the dinosaurs, marching, marching, we are the dinosaurs..." followed by the "WHADDAYA THINK OF THAT?!!" and the timpani drum is, well, the opening strains of Beethoven's Fifth of the late 20th century kids' music resurgence. (Watch Laurie's Noggin video here.) 23. "This Little Light" - Traditional: It's a Christian hymn, but it's been used in the civil rights struggle of the 1960's and in countless other secular situations. Can I hide this song under a bushel? No! (You can listen to one of my personal favorite renditions -- the very first song on Elizabeth Mitchell's very first kids' album You Are My Flower -- on Mitchell's website. Click on "flower," then "listen".) 22. "Row Row Row Your Boat - Traditional (lyrics), Eliphalet Orem Lyte (music): While I'm not quite sure I agree with Wikipedia's existential explication of the lyrics, it's definitely not the most mind-easing set of lyrics if the parent is really paying attention to the lyric. Luckily, the words are so ingrained in our brain we don't need to pay attention to it in order to sing it. (And, as a result, there is absolutely no need to give you a sound clip. It's already stuck in your brain now anyway.) 21. "Baby Beluga" - Raffi and Debi Pike: This is the biggest hit from the biggest children's musician of all time. Shouldn't this be, like, #2? I feel bad putting it at #21 instead of somewhat higher, but I don't think it's the easiest song for kids to sing by themselves. But there are a bunch of kids who are singing it with their parents (who sang it with their parents). (Listen to the song at Raffi's Myspace page.)