Review: Folk Playground (Putumayo) - Various Artists

"Folk Playground is neither 'folk' nor 'playground' -- discuss."

The Putumayo label got its start a number of years ago putting together mix tapes for use in its clothing store. They have since abandoned the clothing store, focusing solely on music, and have developed a kids' music label, Putumayo Kids. The latest entry in the Putumayo Kids series of CDs is the 2006 release of Folk Playground, to be released on Tuesday.

The 33-minute CD may confuse folk purists while also confusing some parents new to the children's music scene. The key component in the definition of "folk" seems to have been whether or not acoustic guitar was included on the track. The "playground" songs -- "This Old Man," "Froggie Went A Courtin'," -- aren't necessarily "folk music" in execution (or, if they are, it sort of stretches the definition.) The term "Folk Playground" is marketing and stretches the definition of what's actually on here.

Now, if you are a devoted children's music listener, you may already have half the songs (or at least half the artists) already in your collection. The problem with the selections from the more familiar artists is twofold. In some cases, the selections are not very representative of the artist's work (Justin Roberts' "Roller in the Coaster," while a nice little song, is a less common type of song for him, compared to the rave-ups; Laurie Berkner has made a name for herself for her originals, not covers. Neither would be considered folk artists.) In other cases, the songs are more representative of the artists' overall work, but not necessarily a highlight from their catalog (Dan Zanes' "Hop Up Ladies," Trout Fishing in America's "Fill It Up," Elizabeth Mitchell's "Crawdad"). These songs are perfectly fine, but I could probably have come up with a half-dozen songs each that I'd've preferred to see on here. (I do think Brady Rymer's "It's All How You Look At It" is pretty good, though.)

Of the less familiar artists (kids' related -- Leon Redbone is hardly an unfamiliar artist), the clear standout song on the CD is Zoe Lewis' "Sheep," about her musings while seeing sheep from far above in an airplane ("I wonder what are you thinking as your little pink lips go round and round and chew / Does night time bring you dreams of spring, mutton, mint sauce, leg of lamb or stew? / (Sorry, sheep)"). It's a sprightly melody, sung with whimsy, and mixed with tin whistle, among other instruments. Forget about the less familiar artists -- it's the best song on the CD, period.

The album is probably most appropriate for kids age 2 through 8. You can download lyrics and listen to sound samples at Putumayo's page for the release.

In the end, after listing all my criticisms, you might be surprised to read that I like the CD. It's a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Putumayo's history as a mix-tape creator serves it very well here as Folk Playground is a CD which will serve as a very pleasant soundtrack to a session of coloring or game-playing. While there are few standout tracks here, the overall listening experience is nice.