A Grab-Bag of Songbags

OK, now that you've read Nerissa and Katrina Nields' excellent book about family music-making, All Together Singing in the Kitchen, perhaps you've been inspired to make more music, either by yourself or with others.

Where next?

Well, I've got a number of books filled with notes and words for singing along with.  Except as noted, all songs feature piano notation with chords for the guitarists (and ukulele-ists) among you.  I've listed some Amazon affiliate links for those of you interested in purchasing a copy -- in many cases, only used copies are left as some of these books are currently out of print.

What if you can only get one?  Well, it probably depends on who you are -- i.e., your musical background -- who your audience is (older? younger?) and where you plan to use it (schools? homes?).  Hopefully I've given you enough guidance to help you jump in.

And so we shall.

Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag [Amazon link] was first published in 1927.  Regular readers may be familiar with Dan Zanes' take on the poet's collection of American folk music (indeed, that's how I was first made aware of it).  My collection features an introduction from Garrison Keillor, and feels as much like a textbook as a songbook, thanks in part to its exhaustive 290-song collection and Sandburg's slightly more ethnomusicographical notes compared to the other books here.  In fact, that's probably a problem for most dabbling singers -- its breadth makes it too hard to find a hit on every page.  (One of the joys of the Zanes album is that he mostly shies away from popular songs and instead resurrects the unknown.)  But it's that breadth that can also give you months of discovery as you work your way through the text.

Ruth Crawford Seeger's American Folk Songs for Children [Amazon link] was first published in 1948 and is in many ways the kids' equivalent of Sandburg's collection (indeed, he writes a brief introductory note to the collection).  Seeger was a composer and tireless folklorist, not to mention Pete Seeger's stepmom (so her influence works in many, many ways).  Adults not used to singing with kids may be heartened by Seeger's lengthy preface.  Many of the roughly 70 or so songs are brief, somewhat unfamiliar (the collection is, after all, nearly 65 years old at this point), and designed as much for a school setting as a group setting, but there is beauty here.  (And if you don't believe me, ask Elizabeth Mitchell, who has repeatedly cited this book as a major influence on her work.)

Moving on to yet another era, John Langstaff's Hi! Ho! The Rattlin' Bog and Other Folk Songs for Group Singing [Amazon link] (1969) will be of interest to fans of the Nields because the sisters studied with Langstaff growing up in Washington, DC area.  Langstaff selected 50 songs "especially for their suitability for group singing" for all ages, representing many different types of traditional music.  Given the book's age, some of the songs that may have been familiar in the mid-60s are less so now, but I find the songs well-chosen

Nancy & John Langstaff's Jim Along, Josie [Amazon link] came out a year later, in 1970, as Langstaff and his wife compiled a selection of "folk songs and singing games for young children," as the book's subtitle promises.  The book includes 81 different songs, all definitely targeted at the younger set.  Given the number of songs in the collection, there are a number of songs you'll recognize, though obviously quite a few will be totally new to you as well.

Kathleen Krull's I Hear America Singing: Folk Songs for American Families [Amazon link] (1992) doesn't have the pedigree the previous books have, but it's a pretty decent collection of 62 songs, primarily from the (historical) folk tradition, but with a handful of newer songs (e.g., "Little Boxes" and "Turn, Turn, Turn" -- OK, "newer" is a comparative phrase) thrown in.

Finally, Peter Blood & Annie Patterson's Rise Up Singing [Amazon link] is sort of the graduate work of this program.  With words and chords to 1,200 songs, you won't ever be at a loss for words for singing.  What you may be at a loss for, however, are the melodies.  In order to fit 1,200 songs in less than 300 pages, you'll just see chords.  Which is great if you have a huge musical background, but flip to any random set of 2 pages, and you're likely just to see one song you're familiar with.  The advantage, however, is that there are some more modern songs -- Beatles tunes, etc. -- than what you'll see in the other books.  Its compact size and breadth make it a nice complement to the other books listed here, but it would not be my first choice.