Here's my ugly Woody Guthrie secret: I never much liked Woody Guthrie's music. Not the songs themselves, just their presentation on record. Neither of his two albums for kids he recorded in 1947 and released in 1956 -- Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child and Nursery Days -- get much play in our house. To my ears, it almost sounds like Woody was just rushing to get these recorded, and nobody would suggest that these 65-year-old recordings of Woody and his guitar are sonically gorgeous.
The songs themselves, however? Those are great. They just needed someone to give them a little tender loving care.
Who better than Elizabeth Mitchell, possessor of one of kids' music most gentle and empathetic voices? In the decade-plus she's been recording kids' music, she and her husband Daniel Littleton have consistently been one of the best interpreters of songs, drawing both from the folk tradition as well as more modern tunes (Velvet Underground, anyone?). Each of her previous albums have included versions of Woody Guthrie songs and now on Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie she mixes those versions with some newly recorded tracks for what is now an essential Guthrie-related album, a nice tie-in to the bigger Woody 100th birthday celebrations.
The seven new tracks here are every bit as good as the five that have come before. "Bling Blang," quite possibly my favorite Woody kids' song, gets a sparse backing arrangement of little more than banjo, ngoni, and knee slaps that is quietly and intensely joyful. ("Why, Oh Why?," almost certainly my least favorite Woody kids' song -- and that's being generous -- is almost tolerable to me.) I love Clem Waldmann's percussion on "Rattle My Rattle" and the simplicity of Mitchell and Littleton on "Merry-Go-Round," reminiscent of those lo-fi afternoon recordings on You Are My Flower lo these many years ago.
These songs are most appropriate for kids ages 0 through 5, though kids raised on Mitchell's recordings (ahem) will enjoy them beyond kindergarten. As alluded to above, five of the tracks on the twelve-track album are previously released and on a 29-minute album, that's no small percentage, and really its only downside. (The mp3 version on Amazon, currently just $4.99, may be an acceptable compromise, though that would be mean forgoing the as-usual excellent physical packaging from Smithsonian Folkways.)
Longtime Elizabeth Mitchell fans will love the new recordings on Little Seed, and if you're a newcomer to Mitchell's music for families, it's a sweet half-hour introduction to the kids' artist most visible folk interpreter. She does right by Woody Guthrie. Definitely recommended.