Review Two-Fer: Collections from Smithsonian Folkways and Yazoo

There was a time where not every kids’ musician had a Myspace page or was prepping a music video.

I’m talking, of course, about the late 1990s.

SmithsonianCollection.jpgIn the late 1990s, the only record company that seemed to anticipate the forthcoming resurgence of kids music was Smithsonian Folkways, which in 1998 issued the Smithsonian Folkways Children’s Music Collection, a 26-track CD culled from the venerable institution’s massive collection of children’s music recordings.

How venerable is the collection? Well, you need look no further than the four artists leading off the set -- Woody Guthrie, Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly, who represent the most important kids’ musicians of the first three-quarters of the 20th century, the 1927 Yankees of kids’ music. Their tracks here are representative of the artists’ work -- Jenkins’ take on “Mary Mack,” a song she made her own, includes enthusiastic children’s participation, and while Seeger lends his sweet, clear voice to “All Around the Kitchen.”

There are other tracks here from Guthrie, Jenkins, and Seeger, but there are some other great tracks here from artists you’ve probably never heard, or even heard of. Lord Invader with the Calypso Orchestra turns in a rendition of “Merrily We Roll Along” guaranteed to get your family dancing around (or at least bobbing their heads). The Canadian folksinger Alan Mills has a gentle Animal Alphabet Song from the early 1970s. And “Hey, Coal Miner,” co-written by troubadour Larry Long and a 6th grade class in Alabama, combines both social history and fun chorus (“Hey… coal miner!”) into one infectious mix. While releases from the 1950s predominate, the album covers releases from the ‘60s all the way into the ‘90s.

There are a mix of age ranges here, some songs appropriate for kids as young as 2, with the upper range easily heading into double digits. As is always the case with Smithsonian Folkways releases, the liner notes to the album are an essential component of the release. You can hear samples at many online stores or you can also visit this page and the "Children's Music" program (#16) for another audio introduction to the overall collection.

This isn’t a perfect album to listen to straight through -- it’s more of an anthology than a mix tape, something you’d dip into occasionally, or to find some artist or song you want to explore further. Still, there is relatively little of the sense that you're listening to something "good for you" -- it's much more a sense of "fun for you." And there’s no better overview of 20th century children’s music than this album. Highly recommended.

StoryThatTheCrowVol1.jpgReaders who find that the number of songs that they and their family enjoy off that album is fairly high may find themselves interested in another release of kids and family music which predates even the music on the Smithsonian Folkways collection. Yazoo RecordsThe Story That The Crow Told Me, Vol 1, released in 2000, is a collection of rural American children’s songs recorded in the 1920s and ‘30s. Richard Nevins took 23 recordings from the original 78s and remastered them for the collection.

There are some definite gems collected on the CD. One has to believe that Dan Zanes had listened to Chubby Parker’s version of “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-me-o” before recording his own take -- Parker’s version has its own swing. Fisher Hendley & His Aristocratic Pigs (yes, that was their name and isn’t it awesome?) do a fun western-style “Hop Along Peter.” And Lew Childre’s “Horsie Keep Your Tail Up” has its own bluesy charms.

To me, the disk as a whole suffers somewhat from a certain sameness in musical approaches -- one song begins to blend into the next over its 67-minute runtime. I think the segment of fans who like the genre of music will really like this disk, maybe even more so than the Smithsonian disk, but it’s not going to be for everyone. I would note that the remastering is every bit Smithsonian's equal, but the liner notes are lacking, with only a few lyrical excerpts.

The album’s appropriate for all ages, but kids ages 3 through 7 will probably appreciate it more than others. You can hear samples here.

As you might gather from what’s already been written, if you’re just dipping your toes into kids music that was recorded, well, to be honest, before you were born, you’re better off starting out with the Smithsonian disk. But for its particular narrow genre, The Story That The Crow Told Me holds its own against the Smithsonian disk. The total audience may much less broad for this CD, but it's got its own charms. Recommended.