Believe it or not, not all folk music is politically charged or even particularly intellectually deep. From nonsense songs to those which introduce children to things like work and bugs – even spirituals – folk music is replete with great songs for kids. Most of us learn traditional folk songs so early in childhood ("This Little Light of Mine," "This Land Is Your Land," etc.) that we often can’t remember by adulthood when and where we learned them. So, if you’re looking to introduce your kids to singalong music or the very notion of folk songs, here’s a look at some of the best kids’ albums available in the genre.
After he was blacklisted for pleading the 1st Amendment (the right to associate with any political party) in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Pete Seeger had a tough time finding work in the music industry. Instead, he took to schools, where he performed for children, encouraging them to sing along on traditional songs like "Frog Went a-Courting" (which is on this album). Thus began a long portion of his career wherein he’s brought folk music to kids. Birds, Beasts, Bugs, & Fishes is one of many installments in his kids’ music cannon. Included here are songs about spiders, geese, raccoons, mules, hedgehogs, turtle doves, and more – an excellent introduction not only to folk music, but to the animal kingdom as well.
Woody Guthrie is usually chiefly known for his historical and topical songs, and as singing work songs like those about building the Grand Coulee Dam, etc. But, Woody Guthrie was actually quite a fan of writing and singing songs to and for children. He wrote his fair share of silly nonsense songs aimed at his own children (i.e. "Goodnight Little Arlo (Goodnight Little Darlin')" which is includedon this disc). What makes these songs so much fun is that they were written mostly from a child's perspective. Standout tracks include "Grassy Grass Grass (Grow Grow Grow)" (purchase/download) and "I'll Write and I'll Draw" (purchase/download) But, with eighteen tracks in all, there's sure to be something to please kids of all ages.
When it comes to collections of folk and world music, few compilers do a more smashing job than the fine folks at Putumayo. This excellent collection can serve as a great introduction to folk music and some of its finest kid-focused artists. Included here are folks like Dan Zanes, country singer Leon Redbone, Elizabeth Mitchell, and more. There are also great singer-songwriters with whom adults may be already familiar (Zoe Lewis, Michelle Shocked). Songs here run the gamut from classics like "This Old Man" to lesser-known tunes like Lewis's original - "Sheep" (purchase/download).
Most people wouldn't necessarily think of Jerry Garcia as being synonymous with children's music. Indeed, the Grateful Dead calls to most people's minds an image of mind-altered hippies twirling in a field, draped in tie-dyed t-shirts and grooving to a lengthy instrumental solo. But, Garcia came of age playing folk music (more specifically, bluegrass) and was heavily steeped in the stuff long before the Grateful Dead became known as one of the greatest live bands of all time. Here, he's joined by mandolin master David Grisman on songs such as Elizabeth Cotten's famous "Freight Train" (purchase/download), all-time kids' favorite "Teddy Bears' Picnic" (purchase/download), and more.
Here's more great kids' music from the Seeger clan. You may know Mike Seeger from the New Lost City Ramblers, and Peggy has had a long career on her own as a folk singer. Together, they've collected nearly a hundred songs to sing with your little one(s). Included are work songs, train songs, nonsense songs, songs about things kids experience and tasks with which they like to help (going to school, having supper, doing the laundry). There are a couple of spiritual tunes - "Mary Had a Baby" (purchase/download), "Jesus Borned in Bethlea" (purchase/download). There are songs about dogs, rabbits, pigs, horses, and more favorite animals. If you can't find songs on this collection to enjoy with your little one, you might want to listen again.
Smithsonian Folkways has long been one of the most reliable record labels in the American folk music community. Collected here are songs plucked from their entire catalog - more tunes from Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Mike Seeger (New Lost City Ramblers), as well as a number of songs from children's music pioneer Ella Jenkins, a selection from the great poet Langston Hughes, and Seeger/Guthrie contemporaries Cisco Houston and Leadbelly. Whether you're looking to introduce the kids to some of American folk music's hardest hitters or you just want to have some fun with silly songs, this is definitely a great place to start.